November 26, 2013

What’s Up With the Cans in Canned Food?

Jennifer Hartle

Jennifer Hartle

Guest Blogger

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Stanford University

BPA-Free-canned-beans-2013Two years ago I wrote an impassioned post about the ideological issues of feeding the hungry with food known to be contaminated with the endocrine disrupting chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA). And because it’s the holiday season, I’d love to tell you about all the progress that has been made. But I’m sorry to say that we’re not much better off. Since this time, there has been no action by the U.S. government to ban the use of BPA from canned food. Meanwhile, there has been a growing need for food assistance programs that use this non-perishable food source. Although canned food has been completely replaced by alternative foods in my house, the thoughtful responses to my original post reminded me that canned food is an integral part of the emergency food system, not to be replaced any time soon. It also should not have to be replaced. Canned food can be an affordable, nutritious source of food.  Here’s what we know so far.

BPA is in canned food.

Now you know. The lining of food and beverages cans is manufactured with BPA and when it is processed, BPA leaches from the lining into your food. The amount of BPA migrating into food varies with the type of food, can lining, and the processing required to make sure your canned food is sterilized. If you thought you didn’t need to worry about BPA exposure because you switched from your plastic drinking bottles to glass and metal, sorry, you are still being exposed from other sources.

It’s no easy feat keeping BPA out of your food.

Unfortunately, these suggestions for reducing the BPA in your food are neither easy nor cheap, but here goes: First, reduce the amount of canned foods you eat. Then, consider whether the same food can be found fresh, frozen, or packaged in a tetra pak or glass container? Alternative forms of packaging come with their own issues. The lids to glass jars may also be lined with BPA, although some brands cover the BPA with another layer of BPA-free coating. There are also canned foods that are packaged with BPA-free liners. One major issue with them is their price. Comparing 15 oz. cans, my local grocery store is selling canned pinto beans for $0.88, organic canned pinto beans for $1.49, and organic canned pinto beans with BPA-free lining for $2.99. The best deal is dry beans, at $1.69 per pound even for organic, which will yield 3 cans of beans. I now use an electric pressure cooker to make all of the foods I used to buy canned. It is affordable and BPA-free,  but the initial cost of the cooker is not negligible. These recommendations all assume that there is access to these foods, a refrigerator, a freezer, and not to be forgotten, a reliable source of electricity.

There’s got to be an easier, more affordable way.

It would be much easier as a consumer if BPA was removed from the food system, wouldn’t it? Apologies again. In the two years since my original post, there has been no legislation at the federal level to remove BPA from canned food or food packaging. One small victory for the food system was the removal of BPA’s use approval in the manufacturing of baby bottles and sippy cups in July 2012. As for canned foods, can manufacturers say that the technology is not available to remove BPA from the linings for all types of foods. There has been no federal effort to push for or to fund research for safe alternatives to BPA in food packaging. Governmental agencies are giving inconsistent messages about the safety of BPA. Here are two examples of the roller coaster of legislation surrounding BPA:

  • On July 26, 2011, EPA published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking requesting comments on the need for further toxicity testing. This draft rule hung in limbo for two years and then was revoked by the EPA on September 6, 2013.
  • On April 11, 2013, BPA was added as a reproductive toxin on California’s Proposition 65 list. Just 8 days later, BPA was delisted from Prop 65 due to pressure from American Chemistry Council.

There’s work to be done.

With BPA still pervasive in the food system, what can we do? Consumer power has already caused some companies to switch over products to BPA-free lining. We should keep this focus and add the need for BPA-free canned food to be comparably priced. We can also direct consumer pressure on the packaging industry to research safe alternatives to BPA. We can leverage our voting power and lobby our legislators to apply force on the FDA to remove the use approval for BPA and over 50 other endocrine disrupting chemicals in the food system. We also need to remember that not everyone has the access, means, or luxury of shunning BPA containing foods. Many people are simply trying to provide food on the table in a consistent manner. And when people of all incomes access the food system, it is their human right to have food that is not contaminated by toxins.

If you like this, please read a related piece just posted by Mark Winne.

Photo: Jennifer Hartle, 2013.

One Comment

  1. Posted by Julia DV

    A seasonal piece, Jennifer, thank you for preparing these lessons …. Today I heard for the first time that aluminum cans / soda cans are also lined with bisphenols – had no idea!

    Three cheers for drying, fermenting and freezing food!

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