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Bisphenol A on the brink?

By Rory Harrington , 05-Oct-2010
Last updated on 06-Oct-2010 at 13:26 GMT

To BPA or not to BPA? While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) backed the continued use of bisphenol A last week, the real question is whether the verdict was a full-blown reprieve for the controversial chemical or merely a stay of execution.

Failing consumer confidence, vociferous and credible scientific opposition as well as moves by some industry players to begin its phase-out all suggest the days of the chemical used in food packaging and polycarbonate baby bottles could be numbered.

In the wake of EFSA’s opinion that it saw no reason to reduce the current tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 0.05mg/kg bodyweight, industry bodies queued up to proclaim the announcement would serve to revive popular faith in BPA.

Optimism or desperation?

At best such statements seemed wildly optimistic, at worst they smacked of desperation. Consumer confidence in BPA has all but collapsed – particularly in food contact materials for infants - and it is hard to see it returning.

The fact that leading US baby bottle producers have vowed to use BPA-free materials and that food giant Heinz is phasing out its use in packaging for baby products shows industry is already reacting to the public’s deepening mistrust by distancing itself from the substance.

The reaction last week of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA) belied earlier statements from the body. It declared EFSA’s opinion should provide reassurance that no further action on the chemical was necessary. But earlier in the year it admitted its members were already searching for BPA substitutes in response to public pressure.

There is nothing wrong with industry seeking to cover all bases – but it demonstrates that behind the confident statements, packaging players are feeling anything but secure about BPA.

The loudest sound heard from the sector in the wake of last Thursday’s EFSA statement was not a collective sigh of relief but of the cracking of knuckles as fingers were crossed harder and harder.

Knife edge

This all means there is little chance that, by opposing the furore surrounding bisphenol A, EFSA is likely to end it. Indeed Denmark and France have already said they plan to uphold their national BPA bans despite the agency’s advice. But this doesn’t mean that Europe’s top food safety watchdog has failed to do its job properly. Although given the level of criticism it has faced over the matter it is clear that many believe this to be true.

EFSA’s role is one of risk assessment – where its experts draw conclusions based on rigorous evaluation of the best scientific evidence available. From the outside, there is every indication the body carried out a meticulous and fair assessment of BPA. Some 20 prominent scientists sifted through 800 studies and papers over a six month period before making a declaration.

Europe’s decision more than a decade ago to split the risk assessment and risk management functions means that the European Commission – the executive arm of the European Union - will have the final say on BPA.

Industry will be hoping the body gives the chemical its unequivocal backing. However, if the Commission follows the recent hedge-your-bet example set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of declaring the chemical to be safe, while advising certain groups to curb their exposure and industry to develop alternatives – then the future of BPA in food packaging will be left teetering on a knife edge.

And given the degree of scientific argument, mounting public doubt and the seeming wavering of industry confidence in BPA, this knife edge might very well turn out to be the executioner’s axe.

Rory Harrington is Senior Reporter on FoodProductionDaily.com with seven years experience as a journalist. He has no opinion on the safety of BPA but believes food safety must be guided by credible, science-based evidence.