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Bisphenol A in can linings – a storm is brewing

By Rory Harrington , 03-May-2011
Last updated on 03-May-2011 at 13:28 GMT2011-05-03T13:28:19Z

Is the tidal wave of concern over bisphenol A (BPA) that swept away polycarbonate baby bottles containing the chemical about to cause similar mayhem in the food and beverage can sector?

Two recent developments suggest that it very well might.

The first is the proposal from Sweden last month to oblige food packaging and manufacturing companies to submit plans about how they intend to phase out BPA in epoxy can linings. The second, last week, was part of an ongoing campaign by shareholder groups urging Coca-Cola chiefs to issue a strategy report on dealing with public uncertainty over the safety of the substance.

Make no mistake – producers of plastic linings and metal packaging are looking over their shoulders with genuine trepidation as the water levels of consumer anxiety appear to be rising at an alarming rate – and heading right in their direction.

Opened the door

But why? A raft of the most respected food safety regulators and scientific committees across the globe have all declared that use of BPA in food contact materials at current levels is safe.

So end of argument, right? Well wrong, because there are enough dissenting voices in the scientific community that believe BPA does pose a threat to fan the flames of consumer unease.

The decision by the European Commission last year to ignore the positive opinion of its scientists and ban BPA-containing polycarbonate bottles in the region has done more than anything to open the door to extending the prohibition of the substance to other forms of packaging.

This fear was voiced repeatedly by metal and plastics trade associations in their response to a consultation exercise by the UK Food Standards Agency. Their frustration at the actions of politicians in Brussels was as palpable as their bafflement at consumers who refuse to stop questioning the reassurances of the authorities.

But if one arm of the European Union appears to be anything less than fully convinced by the opinion of its experts, isn’t it normal that the public will also entertain doubts?

Dangerous momentum

So where does this leave can manufacturers and producers of plastic-based linings?

They might think that proposals for an epoxy phase-out are so far confined to Sweden – one country on the periphery of Europe. That would be a dangerous thing to do as the first European ban on polycarbonate bottles with BPA was enacted in Denmark - another Scandinavian country on the edges of the region – and look what happened after that.

The motion at Coca-Cola was defeated but more shareholders supported the call this year. Campaigners have vowed to return next year and the year after. A recent study by Deloitte has shown fear about BPA among consumers is rising not falling. Concern over BPA – like determined shareholders in the soft drinks giant – is here to stay.

Momentum is a dangerous thing. If the lessons of BPA in polycarbonate bottles have shown anything is that when anxiety spreads among consumers and confidence drains away, industry has to listen – no matter what regulators in Brussels, Washington DC or Sydney say.

The North America Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA) has admitted the “race is on” among industry players to find BPA substitutes – but warns effective and safe replacements are still years away.

That sounds as though they have already accepted that the days of BPA are numbered. The question is not if ’but when can linings will be free of the chemical.

The only issue, it seems, is whether metal and plastic packaging players are ready for the tidal wave that looks to be coming and when it will break? Will they surf the wave or be engulfed by it?

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