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Bisphenol A: Industry Plans New Tactics to Improve Public Image of BPA

By May 29, 2009

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Food-packaging and chemical-industry executives and lobbyists plan to use a pregnant woman to reassure Americans that products containing bisphenol A (BPA) are safe for both children and adults, and that BPA is not the dangerous chemical many scientific studies have indicated. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll try to scare you.

These plans came to light after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obtained a summary of a private industry meeting that took place at an exclusive Washington, DC, club earlier this week. John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, told a reporter from the newspaper that the summary was accurate but incomplete.

Rost said members of the committee were frustrated by media portrayals of BPA as a dangerous chemical and their inability to change public perception. "We're getting no traction and no coverage in conventional media," Rost told the Journal Sentinel. "We're looking for ways to get our side of the story out there."

In addition to hiring a pregnant woman as BPA spokesperson—which the committee agreed would be “the holy grail” for its public relations strategy—the summary reveals a few other key tactics and issues discussed by the group. Those include:

  • General agreement that the group would not be able to find a scientist to serve as spokesman for BPA because industry-financed studies are discounted by the media—a fact that committee members find baffling, according to the summary.
  • A suggestion to focus on how BPA bans could increase health risks for minorities such as Hispanics and African-Americans, who are more inclined to be poor and to rely more heavily on canned foods. BPA is used in the lining of food and beverage cans to help keep the contents fresh; committee members said they would try to get articles published to explain that food in cans without BPA liners would be more prone to contamination.
  • A suggestion to use scare tactics to frighten consumers, such as asking parents whether they still want access to baby food or to lose that option because of a ban on BPA.
  • An agreement to pay $500,000 to survey the American public about BPA safety.
Despite industry insistence that BPA is safe, and agreement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (whose ruling was later discredited because it was based on industry-financed studies and partially written by industry representatives), public concern about the potential health effects of BPA continue to grow. Scientists have linked BPA to a host of health problems, including higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes and liver abnormalities in adults as well as brain and hormone development problems in fetuses and young children.

It’s no surprise that the industry is worried. Both houses of Congress are considering legislation that would ban BPA in food packaging and various other consumer products (such as plastic baby bottles), Canada has already declared BPA to be toxic, and bans are pending in several U.S. cities and states. Some state and local governments already have passed limited bans on BPA.

A reporter from the Journal Sentinel also spoke with Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, who said he was surprised by the contents of the memo summarizing the industry meeting and the calculated tactics discussed by the participants.

"I mean, it seems over the top, even by industry," Wiles said. "I'm amazed in this day and age they'd write this stuff down. This looks as bad as the tobacco or asbestos documents to me.”

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