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Time for Europe to send bisphenol A into the sunset

12-Apr-2010
Last updated on 12-Apr-2010 at 16:38 GMT

Bisphenol A (BPA) is living on borrowed time. And not just in the United States but now in Europe too where mounting consumer hostility and scientific concern over its safety have combined to push the chemical towards the point of no return.

Just a few months ago, it seemed the storm of anxiety surrounding BPA was a North American phenomenon, with Canada and a bevy of US states introducing bans on the substance used in polycarbonate bottles and epoxy food can linings.

Meanwhile, the issue barely registered in the minds of consumers in Europe who seemed broadly content to accept assurances from food safety bodies that all was well with BPA. But the last few months have seen European opposition to BPA attain a momentum that threatens to steamroll anybody in its path – including those white-coated experts at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

But why?

Almost all food safety bodies across the globe have been resolute in their view that the substance poses no risk to human health at current exposure rates. Sticking to the science and steering clear of emotion-based rhetoric is the best way of attaining the Holy Grail of food safety, is the mantra from Washington DC to Parma and beyond. And the science around the safety of BPA was a fortress, they said

House of cards

The first crack in the seemingly impregnable edifice appeared in January with an acrobatic opinion from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declaring the chemical to be safe while simultaneously calling for its use to be phased out in food packaging and the need for greater scrutiny of BPA-containing substances.

Weeks later, France talked of “warning signs” over BPA and the need for further investigation. Denmark went one step further last month by introducing a temporary ban on the substance in packaging for children aged 0-3 until its safety could be demonstrated.

The citadel of certainty surrounding the safety of BPA has threatened to become nothing more than a house of cards.

A difference in emphasis in US and European safety philosophies may also hasten BPA’s demise in food packaging on this side of the Atlantic. In the US, the burden of proof needed to ban a substance is weighted on showing that it poses a threat. In other words, it is innocent until proven guilty. This is exactly how it should be in the human justice system but more questionable when dealing with a potentially toxic chemical that could harm millions.

By contrast, the precautionary principle that informs European food safety thinking allows for the exclusion of substances if they are suspected of causing harm – in other words they must prove their innocence. This approach is exactly why Denmark chose to ban BPA and why France has launched its own investigation into the chemical. It is significant that both agencies were at pains to stress the scientific basis for their decisions.

Last week, a UK newspaper ran numerous articles on the potential dangers of BPA showing it is now clearly on the radar of consumers. An international coalition of eight eminent scientists also said the weight of hard evidence justified a ban on the chemical.

What next for EFSA?

So where does this leave EFSA which has so far given no indication that it intends to depart from its long-held view over the safety of BPA? The body is a purely scientific one - detached from the political arena. But it is savvy enough to know there is a political dimension to all regulatory matters.

The international conference on BPA the body convened last month was undoubtedly a genuine attempt to consult with experts from across the region – but the meeting could also be viewed as a consensus-building exercise. Was it an acknowledgement that the agency may need all the support it can muster in the coming months as it publishes an update to its position on BPA?

The body is due to deliver that verdict in June. But whatever the agency decides, the substance may well have had its day if consumers decide the risks posed by BPA are too great. If EFSA reaffirms its faith in the substance, the plastics industry will urge opponents of the chemical to listen to and abide by the deliberations of the experts upon whose knowledge we ultimately rely.

But in the end the customer is always right and, if industry fails to listen to them, it risks winning the BPA battle but losing the war.

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. If you would like to comment on this article, contact Rory.Harrington ‘at ‘ decisionnews.com.

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