Regulators Delay BPA Warning Labels, Say Poor People Will Quit Buying Canned Food

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Enter California, land of Proposition 65—a sweeping stipulation in State law that requires manufacturers to list potentially hazardous chemicals on the labels. Somewhat recently, Bisphenol-A (BPA) was added to that list for posing a threat as a hormone disruptor. That means that manufacturers would have to add a notice on any consumable items, such as canned food, warning consumers of the potential health risk. Citing their belief that such labeling would scare low-income families out of buying those items, the California Environmental Protection Agency has issued a directive for store owners to post ‘general warnings’ at checkout areas. To simplify that, the agency in charge of protecting consumer health has opted to not label a hazard on an edible item, because it feels people may not want to eat that item anymore.

California is known to many manufacturers as being a pain to do business with due to their standards in labeling laws. These laws stipulate that hundreds of chemicals and compounds be recognized as potentially-hazardous, and be cities in a clear warning label within the goods’ packaging. Maybe you’ve seen a “this product contains X, a compound known to the State of California to cause birth defects,” label on some product, some time. Chances are high, since many consumer goods are made with potentially-dangerous chemicals.

Opted to not label a hazard on an edible item, because it feels people may not want to eat that item anymore

Such labeling seems like a god-send of regulatory operation, yet sometimes does add—what we consider to be—an unspecified sense of fear into the minds of consumers. For example, one of the items on the Prop 65 list of harmful ingredients is lead. Everyone knows lead is poisonous, and everyone knows that it can cause all sorts of health issues. It’s no stretch of imagination to understand how that compound landed on the list. However, lead is a naturally-occurring element and can bind to all sorts of organics during their growth cycle, such as plants, trees, and even animals. For example, if plants were grown in an area that contained trace-amounts of naturally-occurring lead, they would likely test positive for trace amounts of the elemental metal during product testing. This trace amount of lead, would be enough to warrant a Prop-65 label of ” this product contains lead, a chemical know to the State of California to cause birth defects” type label. Many green-drink mixes, as well as organic herbal supplements contain this label, but really only contain trace amounts of lead that would, most-likely, never have a negative impact on your health. To get a better idea of how this impacts manufacturers, read this disclosure statement from a smaller herbal products manufacturer, Earth Circle Organics:

We believe that the presence of these chemicals, at the extremely low concentrations at which they can be found, are the result of natural processes and the natural propensity of plants to bind to these elements.  We recognize that we live on a volcanic planet, and that fact, coupled with human activity, has contributed to the dispersion of many substances into the environment.  In particular, heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and other substances that are commonly found in foods are of concern to everyone.  Certain foods grown in conditions where such chemicals are found, either by natural or man-made causes, have a propensity to take up these chemicals during growth, and can sometimes be concentrated by processing

It is better to over-compensate for health-related risks than to be nonchalant and give rise to a plethora of consumer risks. The disparity between lethal and trace amounts of these chemicals seem to beckon a call for a scale of some sort perhaps, or maybe some more specific language—especially for the naturally-occurring “risks.”

Taking into account the propensity of Californian Proposition 65 labeling laws to over-react in their capacity to warn consumers, may be what has so many upset over the California Environmental Protection Agency’s (CEPA) recent decision. The decision to bypass individual product labeling, or even category-specific such as posting notices on aisles citing specific brands, for generalized warnings posted at checkout areas seems a bit soft-handed when considering other instances of ruling by the agency. The Associated Press reports on the issue:

Ordinarily, the state would either require manufacturers to put those warnings on the cans, or make grocers post signs on canned-goods shelves specifically warning that “Brand X tomato sauce, Brand Y green beans” have the targeted chemical in the can, said Allan Hirsch, chief deputy director of the state EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

For BPA, though, “we think that would be kind of chaotic,” the state official said. “Retailers might react … by just pulling canned and bottled foods off their shelves entirely,” which would be bad news in neighborhoods without good grocery stores.

“We would want to make sure that people, especially in low-income communities, still have access to canned fruits and vegetables. That’s certainly better than not having access to them,” the state official said.

Hirsch also acknowledged hearing “some concern from retailers” about how the warning is going to work.

Kathleen Roberts, executive director of the can industry’s North American Metal Packaging Alliance, said Thursday that confusion “from these warning signs could further limit healthy choices, particularly for low-income families in inner-city neighborhoods and rural communities.”

Rather than require warnings for specific cans and other goods when the warning-requirement kicks in in May, the state plans to make merchants place general notices saying some cans for sale in the store have BPA.

In a world of growing health concerns facing consumers, labeling laws are of the utmost importance to provide all individuals the ability to make an informed decision. Well beyond the means of most, privately-testing all your foods simply isn’t a reasonable expectation of consumers. Agencies such as California’s CEPA have been charged to decide when manufacturers should specify warnings to consumers. In some circumstances, the broad-painting approach can cause, what we believe, fear without context for a lot of natural products. Ultimately, when addressing such a broad-reaching concern, it is better to paint with a broad stroke of the regulatory brush than risk not-addressing a potential hazard. This is a pain for the manufacturers, retailers, but ultimately benefits the consumer.

Their typical scorched-earth approach to consumer labeling is what makes the CEPA decision seem so out-of-bounds with regards to consumer interest. Clearly influenced by concerns of economical impact, stooping low enough to cite “low income families” as their motivation, and making no apologies, the CEPA has offered to consumers something which it should never pose in place of rigid protectionism; excuses.