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Gary Liberson, PhD Headshot

Maybe Business Likes to be Regulated

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There is always a sector of the public that demands Government protect it from all risks. There is also, always a sector of Industry that will not change without regulation. For some companies no regulation means, "do what you want regardless of the risks." With the exception of people like Mayor Michael Bloomberg who showed major manufacturers the error of their ways on salt, the non-regulated route is often elusive.

The case in point Bisphenol A (BPA), a substance making headlines for health risks (i.e., the expectation of harm, NOT the certainty of harm) and whether EPA and/or FDA should ban or regulate the substance in the marketplace. BPA is an environmental estrogen (i.e., endocrine disruptor - a substance that mimics estrogen) usually associated with risks to infants and children, but has now been associated (albeit tenuously) to increased risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes. The majority of the BPA in our bodies comes from the leaching of BPA from food packaging, predominantly the liner in cans, into our food.

At the end of 2008, BPA had been studied by the European Food Safety Authority, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an interagency program with the mission to coordinate, conduct and communicate toxicological research across the U.S. government. After thorough reviews, both Agencies found while there were some risks, the public was predominantly not exposed to levels that warranted regulation. I am well aware there are many people who vehemently disagree with these conclusions. But not everything is a conspiracy. Sometimes decisions are imperfect.

Of course, Government Agencies, especially on at least two continents, don't study chemicals that are benign. So logic should dictate that some consumers (certainly consumers who are pregnant, nursing mothers or parents of small children) should vote with their pocketbooks and avoid products with BPA. Similarly, some food manufacturers should be reducing their dependence on BPA in response to consumer concern (i.e., market forces).

As a matter of fact, manufacturers are reducing their dependence on BPA in our food. This is confirmed by the drop in average BPA levels in our blood between 2003/2004 and 2005/2006 to about 28%. Some have suggested it is too soon to draw conclusions about a decrease in BPA in our bodies, but the data, at this point in time, shows that BPA levels dropped in every age group.

The marketplace also substantiates this drop. Manufacturers and large chain stores are moving away from BPA (see All Before Coffee). We have all seen this shift. Those flimsy water bottles that are environmentally friendly are BPA-free. Coke and Pepsi are moving more and more to BPA-free plastic bottles. In the past year, North American retailers such as Babies R Us, Safeway, Target, Toys R Us, CVS/pharmacy and Wal-Mart have mostly phased out selling baby bottles with BPA (Firms ready for bigger BPA-free bottles.). Regardless, of these drops, EPA is re-examining BPA.

Why review BPA again? There is one main reason: infants and children. The "being green" and "zero risk" communities are not going to let this issue slide. The concerned public is going to keep pushing until BPA is regulated or public awareness forces stronger voluntary actions by manufacturers and large retailers. This doesn't bother me at all. I am all for the informed consumer regardless of where it takes us.

As one might expect, a wide swath of Industry Groups (food canning companies and the Chemical Industry) have come out against any new regulation of BPA. Don't confuse Industry Groups with companies. Industry Groups are driven by the least common denominator: The company that just doesn't want to change. Each of these Industry Groups will have members who are on the right side of this issue and hope to capture market share. Yet, there are always companies that refuse to act without regulation. While Industry is responding, it is in many cases too little too late. Where is the broad BPA-free label on food products aimed at infants and children?

Making all consumer groups happy is as bad as making all of industry happy. There is a middle ground out there, but given the rhetoric, I wonder if we will find it.

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