Bisphenol A: Hearts versus minds

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Bisphenol a

Forget GMO and nanotechnology - the biggest food safety issue of our times is bisphenol A (BPA).

On Friday, California decided not to become the latest US state to ban the chemical. After a week of intense political wrangling, Bill SB 797 fell amid a flurry of heart-felt speeches from the floor and last-minute lobbying in the corridors of the State Assembly.

Why does this matter – apart from once again placing the controversy around BPA centre stage, a location it has rarely vacated since coming to public prominence in the past few years?

It matters because BPA is perhaps the most significant food safety issues of our times.

That’s a big statement to make about a chemical that appears in tiny amounts in some food packaging given the myriad of contamination scandals of recent times.

Who decides on food safety?

But the issues raised by BPA trump them all. And it is not because of the extent and severity of the health risks it may or may not pose. Nor because of the amount of column inches it provokes in the media and on countless internet blogs. And not even because of the emotion it arouses in those determined to protect infants and young children exposed to the potential dangers from the substance in baby bottles and sippy cups.

No - the significance of the BPA issue is that it raises the question of who should have the final say on what is safe and what is not. It is about a shift in the balance of power away from sober, science-based consideration towards people-powered opinion. Think ‘Pop Idol’ for food safety and you’re getting the idea. It sounds attractively democratic but in reality it’s just more dangerous.

Why do politicians and consumer groups, mainly in the US but increasingly in Europe, think they are better informed than scientists who have spent years studying and testing chemical contaminants? As importantly, why are the opinions of laymen being given more credence than those of the professionals? Remember, no food safety authority, with the exception of Canada, has banned BPA.

Loss of authority

In the US, a large part of that answer lies in the performance of the FDA over many years and a perception among some that the body has been more interested in protecting the financial interests of big business than in safeguarding food safety for everybody. In 2007, the body was lambasted for basing its approval of BPA on a small number of studies sponsored by the chemical industry.

This is not an isolated incident and the cumulative effect has seen the FDA forfeit much of its authority and lose the trust of many. It has created a vacuum which has been filled by campaign groups, politicians and anxious consumers. The announcement by new FDA chief Margaret Hamburg in July that the body was going to conduct a review of its opinion on BPA has been seen by many as a de facto​ admission of such.

Test case

The body is due to deliver its ‘new’ BPA opinion in November. The importance of not just getting it right - but being seen to get it right - cannot be overstated. BPA has become a test case for food safety. Politicians and consumer groups have every right, even an obligation, to raise concerns over food safety. But in the end, we should follow the science.

The large body of studies linking BPA exposure to some of the nastiest medical conditions around should​ be a cause for concern. But they must be judged by the appropriate bodies within an informed context – and not be used as a battering ram to force through legislation that, however well-meant, may be counter-productive.

Food safety is too important to be left to pressure groups – let’s think with our heads and not with our hearts.

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