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In a long-awaited decision, last week the Food and Drug Administration disappointed health advocates once again by allowing Bisphenol A or BPA, a known endocrine disruptor, to remain approved as a chemical additive in food containers such as plastic bottles and metal cans.While the agency says it’s still studying the matter, a number of groups say the science is clear enough. Indeed, in the four years since the filing of a legal petition asking for a ban (a court order was needed to force FDA to respond), evidence of potential harm from BPA exposure has only increased. Of particular concern are young children, as the chemical often lines infant formula containers and baby bottles. Ironically, some of the more alarming research is funded by the federal government. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is spending $30 million to study BPA, with much of it published already and more to come. Not surprisingly, the chemical industry claims the additive is perfectly safe.

But with the scientific studies piling up to show how BPA increases the risk of everything from cancer to heart disease to fertility problems, and more recently, even obesity, this latest industry-friendly move by FDA is especially troubling. Meanwhile, without a hint of irony, FDA also maintains several web pages with helpful information for parents and others wishing to avoid BPA, such as: “What You Can Do to Minimize Your Infant’s Exposure to BPA.”

So if FDA admits the chemical is scary enough to avoid and previous independent scientific advisory panels have derided the agency for ignoring the mounting evidence, why did the agency back down yet again?

A revealing article in the New York Times on Tuesday entitled “White House and FDA Often at Odds” could explain what’s behind this disconnect:

“The internal clashes over FDA policy played out against a broader backdrop of regulatory politics. Republicans have made the charge that Mr. Obama is an overzealous and job-killing regulator — a central element of their case against his re-election. And on issues from clean air to investor protections, the White House has been carefully calibrating its election season positions.”

Lack of support from the White House to allow FDA do its job would certainly explain other politically safe decisions during the Obama Administration. These include refusing to act on the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed and continuing to ignore demands to label foods containing genetically-engineered ingredients.

But if the recent uproar over “pink slime” is any indication, Americans are waking up to the stark reality that our food supply is controlled by corporate entities with powerful influence over our political system. This increasing awareness, combined with strong consumer backlash means more companies are feeling the heat and starting to respond. For example, Campbell’s Soup recently announced plans to phase out BPA from its cans, following other food makers.

FDA seems to be in favor of this voluntary approach: “The Food and Drug Administration is supporting current efforts by industry to stop the manufacture of infant bottles and feeding cups made with BPA from the U.S. market.”

How nice. But we can’t only rely on the kindness of companies. The White House should get out of FDA’s way and let public health guide the agency, not politics.


Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, is a policy consultant for the Center for Food Safety as a Policy Consultant. This commentary was first posted April 4, 2012 on the Center for Food Safety website

Image from http://public.health.oregon.gov