There's good news and bad news for health-conscious consumers: of 252 brands that make canned foods, less than 50 percent use bisphenol-A (BPA) lined cans for some or all of their products—but just barely, according to a new survey by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released Wednesday.
With 109 companies not responding, that number could be even higher. The EWG focused on brands that produce "classic" canned foods—"vegetables, fruits, juices, beans, soups, stews and other canned meals, deli goods, tomatoes, sauces, meat, fish and shellfish, canned milk, coconut milk and desserts."
"Disturbingly, consumers have no reliable way of knowing whether a canned food item is BPA-free," EWG wrote in its report, titled BPA in Canned Foods: Behind the Brand Curtain (pdf).
Federal regulations do not require canned goods to disclose BPA-based linings. The material, which is a synthetic estrogen, has been linked to breast cancer, reproductive damage, developmental problems, heart disease, and other issues, EWG noted.
Among the brands that are completely BPA-free are Amy's Kitchen, the Hain Celestial Group, and Sprouts Farmers Market. Those who did use BPA-lined cans include Nestlé USA, Target's Market Pantry, and Bush's.
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EWG took stock of independent labels as well as global chains and found that:
- 31 brands—12 percent of the brands in the sample—used BPA-free cans for all canned products.
- 34 brands, or 14 percent, used BPA-free cans for one or more of their canned products.
- 78 brands, or 31 percent, used BPA-lined cans for all products. About 46 percent of the brands in this group did not say whether they were working with can suppliers or packaging manufacturers to shift to BPA-free cans or to test substitutes.
- 43 percent of all brands gave ambiguous or incomplete answers to questions about their use of BPA and/or did not respond to EWG’s queries.
- Companies that said they had eliminated BPA or were in the process of doing so did not disclose the substitutes they were using, an omission that had the effect of slowing scientific study of the possible hazards of these substitute materials. Only 13 brands volunteered even a vague description of the alternative can coatings they use.
- In the absence of a clear national standard, companies can define “BPA-free” as they wish. As a result, some products labeled BPA-free may have some amount of the chemical in can linings.
"The U.S. canning industry is at a critical turning point," EWG stated on Wednesday. "The public cannot rely on current federal laws that regulate chemicals and food additives to ensure that BPA replacement chemicals are safer than BPA-based materials."
Samara Geller, an EWG database analyst, said in a statement on Wednesday that the "biggest problem is that people have no reliable way of knowing whether they are buying food that is laced with this toxic chemical."
EWG director of research Renee Sharp added, "Many people on tight budgets or with little access to fresh food rely on canned food as a source of nutrients. That’s why we need to get this right. We need a clear national standard that limits the use of BPA in canned food and improves transparency so that people can know when and if they are ingesting this harmful chemical."