Controversies Over Its Use in Organic Food

[This article was previously published in the summer issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Anne Ross, JD, Farm and Food Policy Analyst
at The Cornucopia Institute

Source: Adobe Stock

The basic principle of organic food and farming is one of health, whether it be in promoting health in farming, processing, distribution, or consumption.

Because organic foods are synonymous with good health, consumers are often surprised to learn that the USDA currently allows the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in cans and other packaging materials that contain organic foods.

Many consumers are familiar with BPA, a man-made chemical used to manufacture certain plastics and resins.

We are exposed to BPA through diet when it leaches out of containers into the food or liquid held therein.

Although human exposure to BPA can occur through a variety of sources, the primary cause is contact with the foods and liquids we consume.

In a recent study analyzing the urine of thousands of people of various ages and backgrounds, researchers learned that the consumption of just one BPA-lined canned food product was associated with a 24% higher BPA urinary concentration.

BPA is linked to a multitude of adverse health effects, including cancer, obesity, diabetes, neurological and behavioral problems, and reproductive issues.

The entire population is at risk for BPA-related adverse health effects. Numerous peer-reviewed studies show that BPA is an endocrine disrupting chemical.

Through highly complex mechanisms, the endocrine system regulates human metabolism, reproduction, and development of the body and brain.

In women, BPA accumulates in reproductive organs and, due to its structural similarity to estrogen, impairs the structure and functions of the female reproductive system, affecting puberty and ovulation. BPA is also linked to female infertility.

In men, exposure to low-dose BPA has been found to disrupt the cell duplication cycle, which is related to the development of prostate cancer. Recent research reveals that higher levels of BPA are found in prostate cancer patients than non-prostate cancer patients.

Our children are especially vulnerable to the effects of BPA. Because the human placenta does not act as a barrier to BPA, fetuses are subject to its toxic effects.

BPA exposure during the gestational period is linked to neurological disorders and impaired behavioral development, including hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, cognitive deficits, and learning-memory impairment in children.

Even the Type 2 diabetes epidemic might be tied, at least in part, to exposure to environmental contaminants and chemicals such as BPA.

Recent research shows that BPA is connected to the development of Type 2 diabetes, independent of factors such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, body mass index, and serum cholesterol levels.

Given that more than one in ten adults over 20 years old has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, researchers are increasing attention to dietary exposure to BPA and other chemicals.

So why does the USDA allow BPA in the packaging of organic foods? Consumption of organically grown foods protects the consumer from dietary exposure to dangerous pesticides and simultaneously provides enhanced nutritional benefits. And, of course, organic production practices protect and nurture our environment through sustainable growing techniques.

Why then, would the USDA allow BPA in the packaging of organic foods and thereby risk compromising a commitment to both human and environmental health, something the organic movement embraces at its core?

Some groups, like the Organic Trade Association (OTA), respond that approval of food packaging is the FDA’s responsibility and that the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations do not explicitly forbid the use of BPA.

In expressing what seems to be only token opposition to the use of BPA in packaging of organic foods, some question whether banning BPA would expose us to alternative chemicals that also present health concerns.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is taking note of the use of BPA in the packaging of organic foods. They recently contracted with the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) to issue a technical report to assess the validity of the research related to BPA’s safety and to evaluate the cost of alternatives.

OMRI’s objectivity in evaluating the research related to BPA remains to be seen. Studies which do not rely on industry funding conclude that BPA does, in fact, have harmful effects on health. Industry-funded studies, such as those funded by the plastics and chemical manufacturers, overwhelmingly conclude that BPA has no harmful effects on human health.

The NOSB received comments on the use of BPA at its spring 2017 meeting. Cornucopia’s comment opposed the use of BPA in the packaging of organic products, a position which finds support in the regulations.

The regulations prohibit the use of containers that compromise “organic integrity” in the handling of organically produced products.

BPA’s link to serious adverse health effects more than compromises the “organic integrity” of organically produced foods. The use of BPA in organics undermines organic agriculture’s commitment to health and contradicts the clear intent of the regulatory language.

Other countries have recognized the hazards of BPA, whether or not the food is organically or conventionally produced.

In October of 2016, the majority of the Members of the European Parliament called for banning the use of BPA in all food contact materials. France prohibits the import and domestic sale of any food contact materials containing BPA.

Although the United States bans the use of BPA in infant formula bottles, our laws do not go far enough.

The USDA, through the NOP, should take the lead, protect the public health, and prohibit the use of BPA in all food contact materials used in organic agriculture.

The USDA should similarly address concerns about the health effects linked to chemical alternatives as they arise. Incremental change is often necessary to institute larger-scale and necessary transformations.

Banning BPA from contact with organic food products is consistent with the foundational principles of the organic movement and reinforces the values the consumer endorses every time he or she purchases foods affixed with the USDA organic label.

The purchase is far more than a selection of a particular food product. It is an investment in the health of the individual, the public, and the environment.

Cornucopia will continue to report on the NOSB’s consideration of BPA in organics, and a white paper on endocrine disrupting chemicals is forthcoming.

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