Capitol Alert

California pulls back on BPA warnings, angering advocates

A 16-year-old fills his water BPA free container during spring football training in May of 2012.
A 16-year-old fills his water BPA free container during spring football training in May of 2012.

Public health advocates are assailing California’s move to delay labeling of products containing a chemical commonly known as BPA.

A 30-year-old ballot initiative requires businesses to post warnings when hazardous chemicals are present. Last year regulators added a chemical commonly found in can linings called bisphenol A, or BPA, to the list of ingredients that trigger a Proposition 65 label requirement. Scientists found clear evidence of the substance causing “reproductive toxicity” and California moved to require labels by May.

But the state is pulling back, arguing the labeling mandate would confuse customers and cut poor people off from fruits and vegetables. A proposed shift would substitute warning signs at the register for notices on grocery store shelves or on cans, bottles and other items that could contain BPA. The emergency regulation would be in effect for 180 days and could be renewed for another 180.

In a notice announcing the new emergency regulation, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment pointed to the long shelf life of cans that could have been shipped to stores long before the labeling requirement began, creating confusing inconsistency. It warned that traditional Proposition 65 labeling would cause companies to pull canned and bottled products from shelves.

“This could further reduce the availability of nutritious food products in low income communities and locations known as ‘food deserts’ where, because of a lack of available fresh food sources, the population depends heavily on canned food items,” the notice states. “Widespread Proposition 65 warning signs throughout supermarkets where canned and bottled foods and beverages are sold could also cause some Californians to forgo consumption of healthy and nutritionally important vegetable and fruit products.”

That argument strikes some health advocates as absurd. Charles Margulis of the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland-based organization that champions Proposition 65 and files lawsuits against potential violators, called it “a food industry proposal.”

“The idea that shelves would suddenly be bare because food companies would pull their products – if (regulators) had discussion with food companies who made that threat, they need to make that public. If they didn’t, then this is just made up,” Margulis said. “The proposal will make things worse for poor people because they’ll be denied the right to know what’s in their food.”

Regulators moved to alter the labeling requirement out of fear that consumers would be bewildered by “warning signs plastered all over shelves where bottles and cans are,” said Allan Hirsch, chief deputy director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

“What is the average consumer supposed to make of that?” Hirsch asked. “We don’t think that’s a good way communicate a BPA warning.”

He said the state heard a “fair level of concern from manufacturers” about the looming mandate.

“I think it’s fair to say that the input we got from food businesses made us realize this is not a normal situation and some special steps needed to be taken here,” Hirsch said. “We thought about that and took it to heart, and we basically came up with this proposal as a way of addressing it.”

The North American Metal Packaging Alliance spent $50,000 in the second half of 2015 lobbying the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and other agencies, records show. The California Grocers Association listed the agency among those it lobbied last year, as did the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Industry groups wanted the state to establish “safe harbor” levels of BPA in which the chemical’s presence is small enough to not compel a label, according to Aaron Moreno, a lobbyist for the California Grocers Association.

Citing the “very complicated” science behind BPA, Hirsch said it will likely be some time before California definitively establishes what amount of the chemical would be safe enough to not trigger Proposition 65 warnings.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert