We ask a lot of questions about food. What's the fat content? How much sugar? Is there enough fiber? What about trans fats? Is this the brand of (name that food) that was recalled? Does this have high fructose corn syrup in it?
These are all important, and we can get most of the answers from the label on the package.
But what about these?
Are there toxic chemicals in this can of peas? How much Bisphenol A (BPA) is in this can of peaches? Will my kids get a lower dose of a synthetic hormone if I buy the organic green beans?
Here's the unsatisfying answer: nobody can tell you.
You can't tell by looking at any canned food in the grocery store whether the can is lined with an epoxy resin made with a synthetic sex hormone that has been linked in hundreds of independent peer-reviewed scientific studies to diabetes, heart disease, infertility, developmental and reproductive harm, and obesity, to name just a few chronic health harms.
You can't tell that eating just one meal with at least one canned food product could raise a person's blood levels of BPA to those shown to cause negative health effects in laboratory animal studies.
And you can't tell which can of tomatoes is going to give you the lowest dose, because there's no rhyme or reason to how much BPA is going to leach out of the lining into the food inside.
I can tell you this: It's unacceptable that our ravioli and lentil soup comes with this secret ingredient, and the federal government should not allow it in our food.
U.S. PIRG recently worked with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) (VIDEO) and our colleagues from the Breast Cancer Fund and the Kentucky Environmental Foundation to release No Silver Lining, a report from the National Workgroup for Safe Markets.
Of the fifty cans of food from 19 states and a Canadian province that we purchased, forty six (92%) had BPA in the food. We know this because an independent laboratory opened the cans and measured the BPA concentration in the food inside. We found BPA in organic foods as well as conventional foods. There was no consistency in the amount of the chemical in the cans. In one case, two different cans of the same brand of peas (from two separate lots) had a radical difference: one had six parts per billion BPA; one had more than 300 parts per billion.
Consumers should not have to hope they'll be the lucky one who gets the smaller amount. Putting dinner on the table shouldn't be like playing the lottery.
BPA has been banned from baby bottles and children's sippy cups in six states (Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont), as well as three counties in New York and the City of Chicago. Connecticut and Vermont also restrict the use of BPA in cans of baby food and other reusable food containers.
These are all steps in the right direction, but No Silver Lining shows that there is much more to be done. Senator Feinstein's Ban Poisonous Additives Act of 2009 will protect much more of our food from this toxic contamination by banning BPA in food can linings.
General Mills recently announced that it is moving to an alternative to BPA to line the cans of its organic tomatoes, so we know that companies can do the right thing when they want to, but the federal government must ensure a basic level of protection for consumers.
As the Senate reviews legislation to reform the Food and Drug Administration in the coming weeks, they should add Senator Feinstein's important food safety measure. It's an answer to the questions about food that we shouldn't have to ask.
Follow Elizabeth Hitchcock on Twitter: www.twitter.com/uspirg