By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Manufacturers of cans for beverages and foods and some of their biggest customers, including Coca-Cola, are trying to devise a public relations and lobbying strategy to block government bans of a controversial chemical used in the linings of metal cans and lids.
According to internal notes of a private meeting, obtained by The Washington Post, frustrated industry executives huddled for hours Thursday trying to figure out how to tamp down public concerns over the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA. The notes said the executives are particularly concerned about the views of young mothers, who often make purchasing decisions for households and who are most likely to be focused on health concerns.
Those at the meeting held at the Cosmos Club "believe a balance of legislative and grassroots outreach [to mothers 21 to 35 years old and students] is imperative to the stability of their industry; however, the association members continue to struggle to initiate research and develop a clear-cut plan to defend their industry," an unidentified participant wrote.
Industry representatives weighed a range of ideas, including "using fear tactics [e.g. "Do you want to have access to baby food anymore?" as well as giving control back to consumers (e.g. you have a choice between the more expensive product that is frozen or fresh or foods packaged in cans) as ways to dissuade people from choosing BPA-free packaging," the notes said.
The attendees estimated it would cost $500,000 to craft a message for a public relations campaign, according to the notes. "Their 'holy grail' spokesperson would be a 'pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA,' " the notes said.
Those in attendance said the mainstream media are ignoring their side of the controversy, and attendees talked about how the group is focusing on "legislative battles and befriending people that are able to manipulate the legislative process," the document said.
Kathleen M. Roberts, a lobbyist with Bergeson and Campbell for the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, which represents makers of metal cans and their customers, organized Thursday's meeting and confirmed the accuracy of the notes. She said her members are concerned about bills pending in state legislatures as well as on Capitol Hill that would restrict or eliminate the use of BPA in metal cans. She said BPA is a safe compound that has been tarred by activist groups and that consumers do not fully appreciate its importance.
"We had discussions about whether people really understand what the ramifications would be if BPA were eliminated and alternatives aren't in place," Roberts said. "Everything was on the table, it was a brainstorming session, and no particular decisions have been made."
A commercial alternative to BPA does exist; Japan has significantly reduced its use of BPA in many canned goods. Roberts acknowledged that alternatives are available but not for all uses currently in the marketplace.
Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that wants BPA banned, said the meeting notes struck a familiar chord. "The BPA industry has adopted the tactics of tobacco and asbestos -- when they had no science to make their case, they resorted to scare tactics and public relations," he said. "It seems pretty desperate."
Bisphenol A, used in commerce since the 1950s, is added to plastics to give them strength. It is found in hundreds of household products, including plastic bottles and food containers. It is also present in the linings of canned goods such as soup, baby formula and canned fruits and vegetables.
Over the past decade, a growing body of scientific studies has linked the chemical to breast cancer, testicular cancer, diabetes, hyperactivity, obesity, low sperm count, miscarriage and other reproductive problems in laboratory animals. More recent studies using human data have linked BPA to heart disease and diabetes. And it has been found to interfere with the effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients.
Researchers have found that BPA leaches from containers into food and beverages, even at cold temperatures. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health published earlier this month found that subjects who drank liquids from plastic bottles containing BPA had a 69 percent increase in the BPA in their urine.
Despite more than 100 published studies by government scientists and university laboratories that have raised health concerns about the chemical, the Food and Drug Administration has deemed it safe largely because of two studies, both funded by a chemical industry trade group.
The FDA's position on BPA runs counter to a report by another federal agency, the National Toxicology Program, which found "some concern" that BPA may cause developmental problems in the brains and hormonal systems of children. And last fall, the FDA's own scientific advisory board criticized agency officials for relying on industry-funded studies to declare the chemical safe.
Canada banned the use of BPA in baby bottles in 2008. The six biggest baby bottle manufacturers in the United States have agreed not to use the chemical. Earlier this month, Chicago became the first city in the nation to ban BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, and half a dozen states have similar legislation pending. On Capitol Hill, several bills would prohibit bisphenol A in all food and beverage containers.
Meanwhile, the FDA, under the leadership of a new commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, is conducting a new review of the science surrounding BPA.