By Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust of the Journal Sentinel
A congressional committee is investigating whether the Food and Drug Administration gave undue influence to chemical makers after several recent reports in the Journal Sentinel revealed how government regulators relied heavily on industry lobbyists when considering the safety of the controversial chemical bisphenol A.
Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, wrote FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on Tuesday, asking the agency to examine its relationship with industry groups. They also want the FDA to reconsider its assessment that the chemical is safe.
FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said Tuesday that the agency is expected to release a new decision on the chemical within "weeks, not months."
Also on Tuesday, the California Senate voted to ban BPA from food and drink containers designed for children ages 3 and younger. The bill moves to the state Assembly for a vote.
The federal investigation comes after the Journal Sentinel revealed Saturday that lobbyists met last week at an exclusive club in Washington to hammer out a public relations strategy to sell the benefits of BPA to the American public, including "befriending people that are able to manipulate the legislative process."
The group also discussed hiring a pregnant woman as a spokeswoman for the chemical, referring to such a person as the "holy grail" for the public-relations campaign.
That story followed earlier reports in the Journal Sentinel that showed how industry lobbyists wrote large sections of the FDA opinion, released last September. The FDA's opinion was based on two studies, both paid for by industry. Those studies since have been assailed by an international consortium of scientists as "incomplete and unreliable," the newspaper reported in April.
Last month, the Journal Sentinel reported that e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the FDA relied on chemical industry lobbyists to examine BPA's risks. The agency also counted on lobbyists to track legislation and even to monitor press coverage.
In one instance, an FDA official sought information from the chemical lobby to discredit a study that found the chemical caused miscarriages, even before FDA scientists had a chance to scrutinize the study.
"These new press accounts raise serious questions about the extent to which FDA relied on industry for independent scientific advice," Waxman and Stupak wrote.
The North American Metal Packaging Alliance, the lobby group for food packagers, has hired a crisis consultant firm.
The congressmen have written to John Rost, the association's chairman, demanding that he furnish them with all copies of documents and communications, including talking points, minutes, summaries, memorandums, media statements, e-mails and drafts. They also want a list of all those who attended last week's meeting.
Rost said Tuesday that he was too busy to talk to reporters.
However, the association posted a press release Saturday on its Web site defending its tactics.
"Should it come as a surprise that our industry seeks to defend the legitimate scientific process that has concluded BPA is safe to use in food contact applications?" the press release reads. "Should it be viewed as a scandal that the accumulated frustration of the industry leads to consideration of alternative means of communication? We think not."
BPA, found in the urine of 93% of Americans tested, has been linked to heart disease, cancers of the breast and prostate, heart disease and hyperactivity. Used to make hard, clear plastic, it leaches into food. The FDA ruled last September that the chemical is safe.
News of the lobbying efforts to manipulate the legislative process drew a sharp response from Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who introduced a bill in the House last March to ban BPA in all food and drink packaging.
"Instead of spending money to manipulate the legislative process through fear tactics or slick PR campaigns, I suggest these companies ramp up their research and development, ensuring that only safe alternatives to this dangerous substance are used in food and beverage containers," Markey said. "No matter how they package it, BPA is a toxic substance linked to cancer and heart disease."