Manufacturers are working to meet consumer demands by paring down the ingredients in their food, making it simpler and with fewer additives and chemicals.
But the retooling and reformulation doesn't stop with them. Those who package food are also struggling with getting rid of chemicals that consumers are rejecting.
Most of the controversy is swirling around bisphenol A, which is commonly abbreviated as BPA. It's a chemical commonly found in the polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins used in plastic bottles and metal can linings. It is FDA-approved, but recent research has indicated that BPA may leach from food and beverage packaging into the products people consume. Researchers have linked BPA consumption to health risks, particularly for infants and children.
Manufacturers have responded committing to switch to BPA alternatives. In July 2015, ConAgra announced it had updated all of its U.S. and Canadian facilities to use only BPA-free packaging. This March, both Campbell and Del Monte committed to 100% phase out BPA in their own operations.
But switching to BPA alternatives isn’t always simple, especially for companies like Campbell, which has canned foods of various acid levels and other factors that impact packaging material choices. Manufacturers have several factors to weigh when considering BPA-free packaging.
Why companies are considering BPA alternatives
Del Monte began transitioning some vegetable, fruit and tomato products to BPA-free linings in 2009.
"Our focus has always been consumer-centric, and offering BPA-free packaging is part of our commitment towards meeting the evolving preferences of many consumers," Scott Butler, vice president of R&D, quality assurance and operation services at Del Monte, told Food Dive. "It comes back to consumer preference and meeting the needs of people looking to put top quality food on their table."
Thomas Hushen, Campbell’s senior manager of external communications, told Food Dive that the company still supports using BPA in food packaging, since it has been backed by extensive scientific studies and government regulations.
"However, we recognize that there’s been some debate over the use of BPA, which is why we’re making this transition," he said.
Finding the right alternative
Mike Schade, who runs the Mind the Store campaign for the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, refers to the biggest stumbling block to replacing BPA as “regrettable substitutes.” Sometimes, he said, the BPA substitute can have its own set of drawbacks.
More than a third of all national-brand products Schade and his team tested used PVC plastic and PVC-based polymers, which could be a replacement for BPA.
However, it may not be any safer than BPA “because from production to disposal, PVC is considered to be a hazardous plastic,” Schade said. “It's made from known hazardous chemicals, such as vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride and chlorine gas. Also, PVC is a large source of mercury dioxins in the environment.”
Styrene-based resins, also used in place of BPA, are a potential carcinogen, according to research.
But companies have found some alternatives that meet their needs and consumers’ demands. Del Monte has converted to materials including polyester and vinyl, decisions the company based on "the safety and effectiveness of the materials," Butler said.
In March 2016, Campbell introduced cans with linings made from acrylic or polyester materials, and the company will continue to introduce those new linings across its U.S. and Canada portfolio through 2017, Hushen said.
Challenges manufacturers may face during the switch
Once manufacturers find a safe BPA alternative, there are still other issues that need to be addressed.
The acidity of different products can cause different reactions to BPA and its alternatives. When a company as large and with as varied a portfolio as Campbell tries to replace the chemical, what works well for one product may not be successful for another.
Hushen said that Campbell has tested hundreds of alternatives, but dealt with several technical challenges. One of the larger ones is "identifying linings that would ensure the safety of more than 600 different recipes, such as its tomato-based products, which are naturally acidic and can react with some linings over time," he said.
BPA alternatives may come with additional costs in materials, labor or shipping weight. However, cost isn't always a problem for manufacturers making the conversion.
"Packaging costs are just one of many variables that go into product pricing, and any rise or decline in pricing would not necessarily be tied to packaging costs," Butler said.
Hushen also said that Campbell did not plan on passing costs onto consumers, mirroring a similar sentiment at the time of Campbell’s announcement to label GMO ingredients earlier this year.
Sourcing of materials
Finding a safe alternative for BPA at a reasonable cost is important, but there needs to be a large enough supply to meet the manufacturer's demands. This may especially be a concern for major manufacturers, but Campbell and Del Monte both noted they had not had trouble sourcing the materials they chose.
How manufacturers can eliminate BPA
Schade offered steps manufacturers can take when determining BPA alternatives for their packaging.
- Ask suppliers to disclose what chemicals and materials they use in the current packaging.
- Evaluate alternatives in partnership with suppliers and retailers to determine what serves the intended functional purpose while also balancing consumers’ safety and expectations.
- Work with suppliers to set a goal to phase out or eliminate BPA from their products.
- Set realistic time frames and metrics for measuring progress, and share that progress with retailers and consumers.
- Develop public-facing goals to promote transparency and public awareness of the changes.
- Label not only whether a can contains BPA, but also what the manufacturer is using instead.
GMA offers database as solution to California BPA warning law
In 2015, the California Environmental Protection Agency added BPA to its list of chemicals requiring warning labels, as part of the state's Prop 65 law. This past March, it delayed those on-package warnings, saying retailers could post general warning signs at checkout counters to inform consumers of the presence of BPA in certain canned and bottled products.
Under that mandate, manufacturers must provide warning signs to retailers at no cost and notify each retailer to which products the it applies. But with a massive number of California retailers to contact, mailing or even emailing letters didn’t seem like a practical way for manufacturers to reach all retailers.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association had a different solution: an online database where food and beverage manufacturers can list products with packaging that contains BPA to comply with the state law. The database enables communication between manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Retailers can more effectively direct consumers to information about products containing BPA sold in their stores, Mandy Hagan, vice president of state affairs and grassroots at GMA, told Food Dive.
But the database benefits manufacturers as much as retailers.
"This remedied what would have been an even bigger logistical problem for companies of putting those notices directly on the packaging," said Hagan. "Not only because of how much lead time you need to change labels, but also because with the national distribution system that they have, those products would end up in other states where consumers aren't familiar with Prop 65 and wouldn't know what they're looking at."
BPA alternatives and notifications for consumers are not always easy for manufacturers to implement. But if companies want to keep up with consumers’ evolving health-related demands, BPA-free packaging may be something to consider.
"Making a change of this magnitude requires input from hundreds of employees across the company," said Hushen. "It’s not something that can be done quickly, nor would we want to. The safety of our food and our packaging is paramount. It’s the foundation on which we’ve built nearly 150 years of consumer trust. Any changes we make to our food must be implemented thoughtfully and carefully."