Sylvain Charlebois is a professor at the Food Institute, University of Guelph.
A recent study by environmental groups suggests that more than 70 per cent of food cans stocked in major Canadian retail stores contain bisphenol A, better known as BPA, a chemical often linked to health complications. Indeed, many studies have suggested that BPA can mimic the hormone estrogen and conceivably affect behaviour and neurological development in infants and young children. Some findings have also suggested links between BPA and cancer.
These are not words our risk-obsessed society likes to hear, and the BPA controversy is interesting given that, for more than 40 years, this chemical's main purpose was to make canned food products safer.
Despite several claims by Health Canada that BPA exposure to young children is below levels and should not be a cause for concern, studies suggest that it can migrate from canned food linings into the food itself, which exposes consumers to more risk. The use of BPA is banned from sippy cups and baby bottles, but its use is still accepted in most other food products. Evidence stemming from research on BPA is anything but conclusive, but consumer pressure is mounting due to more studies that support the dangers of BPA.
Mixed messages from policy-makers are also creating discomfort in the industry. Campbell Soup Co. announced recently that it will become BPA-free by the middle of 2017. In light of the confusion surrounding the chemical, the company likely opted to act pre-emptively to shield its brand. It should not come as a surprise if more food processors make similar commitments in coming years.
When looking at the BPA issue, we can learn from our less-than-stellar past on how we have anticipated potential threats throughout the food chain. The underestimation of risks in the early stage appears to be part of a necessary pattern. Trans fats (unsaturated fatty acids) provide one of many examples speaking to how valuable a longitudinal approach to research can be for the food industry. Time and extended research lead to a greater understanding of how to deal with socio-technical challenges. Trans fats were about extending shelf life and making food taste better, until the research pointed to cardiovascular diseases. Within a few years of these studies, new regulatory labelling policies were put into place and now trans fats are rarely found in Canadian food.
BPA is about protecting the public, and industry has had good reasons to use it. It is affordable, available and uncompromising to food taste. What we have learned from the past, though, is that we cannot take anything for granted. Over time, more research leads to new discoveries and intriguing findings that can lead to better policy, full stop. Evidence-based standards are key to making our food systems more efficient. Given our risk-mitigating track record over the years, we should all proceed with extreme caution.
Of course, if we are to get rid of BPA, we should equally be concerned about what would replace it. The industry would be required to forfeit a chemical with a proven food-safety track record and potentially exchange it for something that poses other risks. A desirable outcome would be development of a product with less public health baggage, but this could lead to increased packaging costs. With time, proper alternatives can be found. As such, this is one issue where we shouldn't kick the can down the road.