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Sylvain CharleboisA recent study by environmental groups suggests that more than 70 percent of food cans in major Canadian retail stores contain bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical often linked to health complications.

In fact, 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 even suggest links between BPA and cancer. These are not the words our risk-obsessed society wants to hear.

The controversy over BPA is ironic, given that for more than 40 years this chemical’s main purpose has been to make canned food safer.

Despite several claims by Health Canada that BPA exposure to young children is below accepted levels and should not be a cause for concern, studies suggest that BPA can migrate from canned linings into the food itself, exposing consumers to more risks. BPA cannot be used in the manufacture of sippy cups and baby bottles, but its use is accepted in packaging for most other food products.

However, evidence from BPA research is anything but conclusive and the conflicting messages lead to more market confusion. Consumer pressure, though, is mounting as more studies detail the dangers of BPA and suggest the chemical be outlawed.

As well, mixed messages from policymakers create discomfort in the industry. Campbell Soup Co. announced recently that it will be BPA-free by mid-2017. That announcement attracted significant attention to the BPA issue. In light of the BPA-related confusion, the famous soup 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 over the next few years. For businesses, food safety is about addressing factual and perceptual risks. If safety and welfare are at the core of a food-related brand, then many such brands will move on the issue sooner rather than later.

History suggests the industry can do better at dealing with safety threats in the food chain. In particular, underestimating risks in the early stage appears to be part of a pattern. Time and extended research will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of how to deal with socio-technical challenges in the food industry. But with less patience, errors are made. The mad cow disease crisis was one example. Another is the use of trans fats, or unsaturated fatty acids, in food.  The use of trans fats was about extending food’s shelf life and making it taste better, to the benefit of consumers. Then research pointed to a link to cardiovascular diseases. Within a few years of that research, new labelling regulations were put in place and now trans fats are rarely found in Canadian food.

The use of BPA was initially about protecting the public, yet industry has had other good reasons to use it. It is affordable, available and uncompromising to food taste.

However, we have learned from the past that we cannot take anything for granted. More than ever we should acknowledge that science is not an absolute. Over time, more research leads to new discoveries that can result in better policy. Evidence-based standards are key to making our food systems more efficient.

But given our risk-mitigating track record, we should always proceed with extreme caution. That means if we get rid of BPA, we should be equally concerned about what replaces it. The industry would be forfeiting a chemical with a proven food safety record in exchange for one that may pose more risks.

The best outcome would be to develop a product with less health baggage, but this could lead to increased packaging costs and those will go straight to the consumer.

With time, proper alternatives can be found. Until then, we should not be too quick to kick the can down the road.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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