Campbell's big fat BPA lie -- and the sustainability activists that enabled it

Reuters

A customer holds a can of cream of celery Campbell's Soup at a grocery store in Phoenix, Arizona, February 22, 2010.

How did the world’s largest soup company go from pariah to paragon over its use of the controversial chemical bisphenol A? It lied, and credulous NGOs and chemophobic campaigners played willing patsies. Here’s an ugly story of what happens when ideology corrupts science.

“I just don’t understand how Campbell’s is doing it,” a top executive at one of the leading chemical coating companies in the United States, one known for its focus on sustainability, said to me a few weeks ago.

He was referring to the tsunami of headlines last March heralding Campbell’s Soup for what appeared to be a dramatic change in its policy about its use of bisphenol A, a controversial starting material in the manufacture of epoxy resins and targeted as Public Enemy No. 1 by anti-chemical campaigners.

Campbell’s, like many canned good companies, such as Heinz, ConAgra, Del Monte, Kroger and Wal-Mart, to name just a few, has faced strident attacks from a coalition of advocacy groups and what’s known as the “socially responsible business community” for using epoxy liners made in part with BPA in its canned goods. Regulators around the world uniformly say BPA safely protects against spoiling and poses no danger at the minute levels used in cans, but many activist groups portray it as a ‘child killer’.

"Regulators around the world uniformly say BPA safely protects against spoiling and poses no danger at the minute levels used in cans, but many activist groups portray it as a ‘child killer’." -Jon EntineConsidering the bad publicity the chemical engenders, every one of these companies would love to switch to a less embattled lining material, whatever the science may say about its actual potential for harm. That’s why everyone in the industry was shocked in March when Campbell’s appeared to announce it was phasing out BPA entirely, and soon.

NGO’s celebrate

News of Campbell’s apparent dramatic turnaround first came in a statement released on March 5 by Breast Cancer Fund and Healthy Children Healthy World (HCHW), which had led a six month campaign targeting Campbell’s as the ‘most vulnerable’ among the major canned good companies and therefore most likely to capitulate. Together they sent more than 70,000 letters, many accusing Campbell’s of poisoning children.

“Parents want to be sure when they serve Campbell’s Soup to their kids that it is free of toxic chemicals that contribute to disease,” said Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, Executive Director of HCHW, when it broke the Campbell’s story in a news release. With days, the web was ablaze with stories of the NGO triumph; Campbell’s was cautiously celebrated for stepping out of the dark side.

“Campbell’s to stop using BPA in soup cans,” headlined GreenBiz.com.

Rodale press, the darling of the organics lobby, was rapturous: “Campbell’s Soup: We’re Taking BPA Out of Cans!”

World’s Largest Soup Maker to Remove BPA from Cans,” crowed the Environmental Working Group, a key member of a coalition of non-governmental (NGO) activist groups and “socially responsible” investing companies that had been badgering the company for years

An anonymous source with direct links to Campbell’s told Food Production Daily, a respected industry insider publication, that the company “is estimating that the full switch to BPA-alternatives will come about before 2015.”

“Activism Works,” was the self-celebratory headline at TruthTheory.com. “Campbell’s Drops BPA in Response to Health Activism, Outrage.”

Victory” echoed the HCHW website. “Together we made sure Campbell’s got the message! bragged executive director Sarnoff.

The truth behind the headlines

“Wow. When we saw the headlines, we were just flabbergasted,” my chemical executive friend told me. “We’ve been looking for alternatives for years. There’s a large potential market for it. I didn’t think the science was there yet. We just couldn’t figure out how they did it.”

Well, that’s because Campbell’s hasn’t figured out how to do it either—and according to leading scientists inside the industry and out no breakthrough is in sight. Despite Campbell’s public statements and hundreds of congratulatory media stories, the soup giant’s basic manufacturing and research capabilities haven’t progressed significantly in recent years. Like every canned goods company, it’s very slowly edging away from using BPA in a tiny fraction of its low-acidic food lines. For the rest of its canned business—95% or more—Campbell’s, like its competitors, will stick with what’s safe and effective: BPA.

Inside the Campbell’s Soup fiasco

Campbell’s has known since March 5 that the media was wrongly praising it for something it hasn’t done, and doesn’t even believe in.

“Despite what’s been reported in the press, we’re not there yet,” I was told early this summer in an hour-long phone interview with David Stangis, Campbell’s Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability. We had a wide-ranging interview about the company’s CSR initiatives. And indeed, many of them are impressive. I ended the puff piece interview with some direct but appropriate questions about its reported plans to abandon BPA, which I had taken at face value.

“Well, we will move [away from BPA] when we find substitutes, but it’s a long way off.” I was taken aback at his statement as it so directly contradicted thousands of media reports that littered the Internet.

Stangis was critical, almost derisive, of the two NGOs that had targeted Campbell’s. “The [joint HCHW—Breast Cancer Fund] press release made it sound like they were taking credit for forcing a change in our behavior, when we haven’t changed,” he told me. “We’re also aware of the science and the conclusions by regulatory agencies around the world that it’s safe, although there are concerns. Used in cans, it keeps the food from spoiling. We use it. We will follow the science.”

Why didn’t you go public when NGOs started making claims that Campbell’s was phasing out BPA? Why didn’t you or a Campbell’s spokesperson correct the misleading statements about the company’s policy and the science surrounding BPA when it was widely reported that you had found cost-effective substitutes and would entirely phase out BPA within three years?

“We realized that the media got the Campbell’s BPA story wrong,” he told me. You could hear the anxiety level in his voice rise. But he pressed on saying what no one at Campbell’s had said in the months since the Big Green Lie.

“We’ve had the same group of NGOs for years calling out Campbell’s as the target and poster child for using BPA. There are concerns, emotional concerns. You know just as I know that if you have a fear based concern around a material or package you don’t win over anyone with a fact based science argument. We believe BPA is safe. But how can we be scientifically credible without appearing to be ignoring our consumers? For five years, we’ve been looking at substitutes that would be as safe. We said two years ago that when a safe substitute is found we would move to it. Despite what’s been reported in the press, we’re not there yet.”

In other words, Campbell’s was caught between a rock—the international science and regulatory community that says the BPA is safe as used—and a hard place—the reality that consumer perceptions, and buying habits, are often shaped, significantly, by scare groups whose grasp of chemistry can generously be described as thin.

Our talk ended pleasantly, and as is my standard procedure, I promised that I would subsequently review his comments with him for accuracy. But within two days, his tone had changed. Perhaps he realized that his candor might not play well with the campaigning groups that have previously targeted Campbell’s.

“I want to replace the entire comments about BPA,” he told me. Out went the candor. In came the propaganda. This is the bland and entirely deceptive paragraph that Stangis wanted to substitute:

“We believe that the current can packaging technology used in our products is one of the safest food package options in the world. However, we have been studying the issue and recognize that there has been a debate over the use of BPA. For more than 140 years, we’ve earned consumers’ trust—and we intend to keep it.”

What happened to the acknowledgement that anti-NGO groups are not following science? What happened to his candid admission that Campbell’s had let misstatements echo in the press and that the company had not intervened to set the public record straight?

Stangis, while remaining cordial in emails, refused to explain why he had so dramatically reversed course. Month’s later, I landed an interview with Anthony Sanzio, Vice President of Global Communications at Campbell’s. He echoed Stangis’s statements.

“Our policy hasn’t changed, basically, since 2010,” he concurred. “The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence shows that the use of BPA in can lining poses no threat to human health. BPA has been deemed safe by every major scientific body in the world and it continues to be approved for use in our products by every major regulatory authority in the world. We are responsive to public concerns and the debate over this epoxy liner, but the science says it’s safe, and we will follow the science.”

Still, Sanzio couldn’t help bragging that Campbell’s was moving briskly to phase out BPA in some can lines. So I asked if he could provide hard numbers. “No,” he said, “that’s proprietary.” The best he could come up with was that there are 125 million non-BPA cans of Campbell’s products on shelves worldwide. What percentage of that is overall production? What’s the change as a percentage of overall production over the past few years? How fast is the growth. What types of foods have or do not have cans with BPA? Raw numbers without context are useless. He wouldn’t say. Zipped lips. Nada.

Considering that Campbell’s, and Sanzio in his regular dealings with the media, continue to make optimistic claims about the company’s anticipated transition away from BPA, I asked him if he would please put me in contact with a company scientist to discuss what types of chemicals are being tested as BPA alternatives? What does Campbell’s know that no one else in the industry knows? No, no, no.

Because of the thousands of artcles generated in March by the bumbled NGO news release, the overwhelming number of journalists and the public still do not know the truth about Campbell’s–it’s doing nothing much different than its competitors. And now, renowned for its transparency when it comes to friendly questions from toothless CSR followers, it’s beginning to sound like the CIA when a genuinely important subject—public health—is on the line. Sanzio and Stangis might as well have said: “We want the good publicity but none of the scrutiny.”

The science of BPA

BPA, as its known, is a plasticizer used to make the epoxy mix that line canned goods and prevent them from spoilage, preserving canned goods and saving tens of thousands of lives every year. It’s ubiquitous, used in thousands of other common polycarbonate products, from plastic bottles to sports helmets, from phone housings to automotive coatings.

International science based government agencies, including the European Food Safety Authority (2011), World Health Organization (2011) (2008), German Society of Toxicology and Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (2011), Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (2011), Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (2008), Health Canada, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2012) Japan’s Research Institute of Science for Safety and Sustainability (2011) and the US Food and Drug Administration on four separate occasions over the past four years, most recently this past March have consistently found BPA safe as commonly used—such as in can liners.

Despite the growing and increasingly loud chorus of findings from the most experienced science-based bodies in the world, a loose coalition of anti-chemical groups gather under the banner of “child safety” to lobby for bans on a range of chemicals, from phthalates to BPA. Why? They are obsessed by what is known as the “precautionary principle.” That’s a notion, which evolved out of the hyper-progressive 1970s, that argues that innovative science—old technologies, such as chemicals, or newer ones, such as genetic modification—should be shelved or suspended indefinitely because scientists cannot prove without a doubt that their use is safe.

Of course, proving a negative is logically impossible. That’s why the USFDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and hundreds of other science agencies around the world set toxic policies based not on precaution but on risk. Is there evidence of real danger based on real world usage? That question has been asked about BPA time and time again in laboratories around the world, and every international science based regulatory agency—including in precautionary obsessed Europe—has determined that BPA safe as used.

But what about mom’s who want to be ultra-cautious? Why not switch to canned goods that are not made with BPA? The short answer is: there are as yet no substitutes on most canned products, which are acidic. Canned tomatoes are a good example. A few organic or natural food companies, like Eden Farms, have switched to glass containers—although from a purely safety point of view, studies have shown far more people will be injured and even die from using breakable glass containers than might face even the most imperceptible problems from BPA.

I reviewed this issue with Eden Farms, which I found to be very transparent on the subject. Their website is a model of disclosure. They’ve been using a BPA substitute for some low acidic products, like beans, for more than a decade, and have done so under the radar. Now as the BPA controversy has emerged, the sustainability spotlight is suddenly on Eden. So, are there canned beans a safer product because the linings don’t contain BPA?

The only honest is “no”. Don’t be fooled. Eden still lines its cans with a chemical. Ball Corporation makes the cans. What do they line their cans with? Ball kicked that can to the company that makes the chemical liners, Vaspar. Getting a comprehensive answer out of spokesman Mark Goldman was hopeless. He came up with this canned statement:

The coating for the Eden Foods canned products is a solvent-based technology that is commonly used in 3-part cans for mild foods, such as beans. This non-epoxy based coating has been in use for decades and has been repeatedly proven to be safe by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Our testing of this coating adheres to the FDA’s strict testing protocols and FCN standards.

The only news here is that the chemical Eden uses is “not-epoxy based.” But what’s the chemical? How does Eden’s mystery chemical compare to BPA, which is well known and extensively tested? Both adhere to the FDA’s strict testing protocols and FCN standards. Both have been repeatedly proven to be safe by the U.S. FDA. What’s the difference?

Well, BPA has been undergone many thousands of lab tests, and shown to be safe for use in humans. What about the mystery chemical? Who knows? Vaspar vehemently refused to name the active ingredients or disclose even one toxicity test that it has passed.

If I were on the board of Breast Cancer Fund or Healthy Children Healthy World, rather than sending journalism bouquets to Eden, Ball and Vaspar, I’d be storming their barricades. Do they truly care for children’s safety? Do they really believe that just because a liner is made in part with a natural chemical that it is automatically safe? Would they really rather roll the dice on their children’s health on a chemical that is almost certainly under-tested, and may have unknown serious short and long term consequences?

The NGO—media—anti-risk advocacy group complex

The story ends with the self-proclaimed protectors of sustainability—the above named NGOs and the array of “socially responsible” organizations who have decided in recent years that banning BPA is a litmus test issue for progressives. I approached every major player in this controversy—officials at HCHW, Breast Cancer Fund, As You Sow, and even well known anti-BPA journalists such as Amy Westervelt—with an offer to discuss my findings about Campbell’s Soup and its transparency shortcomings.

Bottom line: no response. They couldn’t have cared less, it seems. Perhaps they got what they wanted, which was a high profile “victory” over a big bad corporation they had brought to heal.

I also brought the story to the attention of Green Century Fund. It had made its “concerns” about BPA a centerpiece of its marketing efforts. It’s premise is that companies like Campbell’s, Sara Lee, Coca-Cola, Whole Foods and the like face potentially costly lawsuits because they use BPA. But that would only be true if there was solid evidence that BPA was in fact harmful—which no reputable international science agency has found. So, while appearing to be prudent and high minded, Green Century Fund positions itself as an alert meter for ambulance chasing tort lawyers. In fact, GCF’s partner in this campaign—the anti-science NGO As You Sow—plays that exact role in this debate.

When I approached GCF director of shareholder advocacy, Larissa Ruoff, about its current views about Campbell’s and BPA, the best she could come up with was a summary of its 2010 analysis: “Campbell Soup emerged as one of the most candid companies regarding its research and investment in identifying feasible BPA-free can linings. In our report, we commended the company for its transparency on this effort.”

Well, we know now that Campbell’s, when faced with a real-life crisis and a genuine test of its transparency and integrity, has failed. Is GCF interested in the facts about BPA, how it is actually used Campbell’s and other companies, how competitors such as Eden Foods use relatively untested chemicals instead, and what international regulatory bodies have concluded about the chemical—in contrast with the claims of anti-science groups, such as its research partner, As You Sow? The discussion suddenly died.

This is a sad story—for Campbell’s, for advocacy groups that may mean well but have lost their way and for large swaths of the “sustainability” and “progressive” communities, which increasingly rely on litmus test ideology.

But most sadly of all, this is bad news for science and science journalism. Life involves choices and trade offs. Science is rarely black and white. Will we make science based choices or empirical evidence will they be driven by precautionary hysteria? Let’s see if the science media can right the ship on the BPA story.

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