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Why the Food Lobby's Bull-Headed Defense of BPA Is a Battle It Can't Win

The Grocery Manufacturers Association's continued insistence that Bisphenol A, or BPA -- an estrogen-mimicking chemical that some studies have linked to cancer and reproductive problems -- is perfectly safe threatens to turn the group into a bad actor, one that's obstructionist, backward-looking and indifferent to consumer concerns. For a group that considers itself an enthusiastic partner in Michelle Obama's fight against obesity, it's not exactly the image they're going for.

To start with, GMA's efforts on behalf of BPA, which is used in the protective coating in virtually all food and beverage cans, give the impression that the group cares more about preserving the status quo on BPA than reforming our ailing food safety system. GMA, which represents packaged food and beverage companies like Kraft (KFT), Coke (KO), General Mills (GIS) and ConAgra (CAG), teamed up with the US Chamber of Commerce and sent a letter to Senators Tom Harkin and Mike Enzi in April threatening to yank its support for the much-needed and long-awaited food safety reform bill unless Sen. Diane Feinstein's amendment banning BPA in food and beverage containers was deep-sixed. Some credit this obstruction as one of the reasons the legislation, which cleared the House last summer, languishes in Senate limbo.

The other problem with trying to defend BPA is that it's like running with the bulls, but in the wrong direction. Whether or not the science is settled on BPA's effects on human health, consumers are increasingly spooked by it because they know it leaches into food and into formula from plastic baby bottles.

In a report last month, the National Work Group for Safe Markets, a collection of environmental and public health groups, tested the food from 50 canned products and found BPA in 92% of them. Even the FDA, quiet as a mouse for years on the issue, expressed "concern" earlier this year about the chemical's effects in fetuses, infants and children.

GMA's defense of BPA seems rooted in the shaky idea that once the NIH and FDA complete their planned testing of the chemical, the government will affirm BPA's safety. But enough studies -- some 200 -- have found problems with BPA that it's unlikely to ever get a clean bill of health. And besides, once a food-related substance hits red alert status in the media and among consumers, it tends to stay there.

As the group representing much of the food industry, GMA would be better served spending more time and money funding and publicizing efforts to come up with safer alternatives. The group claims that one of the reasons it's vehemently opposed to Feinstein's BPA ban is that there are no commercially viable replacements. Let's find some.

GMA says that such efforts are underway, but it's funny how you just don't hear about them.

Image by Flckr user Christopher Chan

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