This Toxic Chemical Is Lurking in Your Canned Food, and There’s Nothing You Can Do About It

Exposure to the chemical has been linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, diabetes, infertility, and obesity.
(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Mar 30, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Canned food is a convenience that comes with a high toll on health if the plastic lining inside the can contains bisphenol A.

When a coalition of health and environmental advocacy groups tested 192 cans randomly chosen from many retailers in Canada and across 19 American states, they found that nearly 70 percent contained BPA.

Some of the affected products came from companies that have claimed to be taking steps to remove BPA from their packaging, including Kroger, which announced efforts in 2011 to eliminate BPA in canned goods, and Campbell Soup Company, which made similar announcements in 2012.

BPA was found in all the Campbell’s cans tested, 70 percent of Del Monte products, half of Progresso and Green Giant cans, and many of the private-label cans sold by Kroger, Albertsons, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Target, as well as in dollar stores.

The groups released a report detailing their findings on Wednesday.

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Studies have linked BPA, a common additive in polycarbonate plastics, to endocrine disruption in fetuses and children, leading to sexual and reproductive development problems. Researchers have also tied BPA’s hormonal effects to increased risk for breast and prostate cancers, infertility, type 2 diabetes, obesity, asthma, and attention deficit disorder, leading to public demand for BPA-free products.

The U.S Food and Drug Administration maintains that “BPA is safe at the current levels” found in food containers and packaging. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found detectable levels of BPA in 93 percent of people tested, causing some public health advocates to worry that consumers’ cumulative exposures are putting them at risk.

Ahead of the report’s release, Campbell announced on Monday that it would eliminate BPA from all cans sold in North America by mid 2017. Del Monte said on Wednesday that it would follow suit.

Watchdog groups have outed BPA before, but what’s new about this report is that it tested for alternative materials that also pose health risks.

Those tests found not-very-safe alternatives in 25 percent of cans, such as polyvinyl chloride plastic and styrene, both known carcinogens, said Mike Schade of the nonprofit group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coauthor of the report.

Campbell is phasing in alternatives to BPA-related linings, said company spokesperson Thomas Hushen. “So far, we’ve made two million cans using the new linings and began shipping soup in these cans in March 2016,” he wrote. “We will make an additional 10 million cans in April and continue the transition until all our soup cans have acrylic or polyester linings.”

Schade pointed out that acrylic lining contains styrene and said alternative linings need further study to determine whether they are safe for use with food.

“To ensure that the alternatives are safe, we’d like to see these brands and retailers use a method like the Green Screen, which many companies use to evaluate safer alternatives, to ensure they’re not jumping from the frying pan into the fire,” Schade said.

Consumers hoping to avoid BPA appear to have some options. A number of widely available supermarket brands, including Amy’s Kitchen, Annie’s Homegrown, Hain Celestial Group, and ConAgra, have switched to safer alternatives, according to the report.

Among store brands, Albertsons, Kroger, and Whole Foods have adopted policies to reduce BPA in their private-label canned foods. Aldi, Target, and Walmart don’t yet have such policies, the report stated.

Worried consumers can also “switch to Tetra Paks, glass, or other alternatives until safe linings can be found for cans,” Schade said. “We hope this report is a wake-up call for retailers.”