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BPA fears reshape bottle market, are cans next?

Once the e-mail came down from the corporate office, Fely Seabrooks and her employees immediately went to work on the baby bottle display. Within hours, shelves at the Babies"R"Us that were once full of polycarbonate (PC) baby bottles were now completely empty.

Once the e-mail came down from the corporate office, Fely Seabrooks and her employees immediately went to work on the baby bottle display. Within hours, shelves at the Babies"R"Us that were once full of polycarbonate (PC) baby bottles were now completely empty. In April 2008, a group of retailers, including Babies"R"Us, Wal-Mart, Toys"R"Us, and CVS/pharmacy, proactively decided to remove PC baby bottles from their stores due to fears about the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) within the plastic, leaving retail locations around the country, and their employees, scrambling.

"We pulled everything off, Avent, Born Free," Seabrooks says. "Everything that had BPA we pulled off, even pacifiers." Seabrooks, store supervisor of the Babies"R"Us at 9330 N. Sheridan Blvd. in Westminster, CO, gestures to the empty wall of her office to describe how bare the shelves were, and would remain, until "BPA-free" alternatives, started to trickle in.

This was the scene at thousands of retailers across the U.S. some two years ago, when retailers and brand-owners, caving to public pressure and in the face of government inaction, took matters into their own hands. Once the pledge to stop carrying BPA-containing PC bottles was made, the impact of the resulting country-wide recall was swift and far reaching. PC has essentially been completely purged from applications like water and baby bottles, and now, focus is shifting towards the BPA found within metal cans' epoxy coating.

Bottle shopping on PhotoPeach

Bottle buy backs
In addition to yanking new merchandise, Babies"R"Us and other retailers had also agreed to take back any used BPA-containing bottles that customers brought in, further cluttering the loading dock at the rear of the store as shoppers swapped old PC bottles for BPA-free versions or store credit. "Then all the people came in with their old bottles that they purchased like two or three years ago," Seabrooks recalls some two years later, "and we had to take it back—we had no choice."

While waiting for new plastic bottles that weren't composed of PC, Seabrooks said the store began stocking, and quickly selling, glass bottles from the Born Free and Evenflow brands. Eventually, Born Free released a BPA-free version, which quickly dried up the glass-bottle sales, while flying off the shelf.

"[Born Free BPA-free bottle] came out and those things were like sailing out the door," Seabrooks says. "For months and months we could hardly stock." Today as you enter the store and turn to the right, half of the western wall is devoted to baby bottles and their accoutrements. The baby-bottle section is divided evenly between five brands—Avent, Gerber, Playtex, Dr. Browns, and Bornfree—with a pink billboard running the length of the wall and delineating where each brand can be found below.

With the entire store devoted to all things babies, from clothes and toys to furniture and diapers, each section can have an overwhelming amount of choices, with baby bottles being no different. This afternoon, an Asian couple peruses the myriad bottle choices while an older gentleman with them watches their baby in the shopping cart. The couple, however, could look all day and not find a PC bottle, with every single package proclaiming that the bottle within is "BPA free," with others tacking on "phthalate free" for good measure.

Toys"R"Us, which owns the Babies"R"Us brand, announced that as of Jan. 1, 2009, all baby bottles and baby feeding products sold stores and through its websites would be BPA-free. "While the FDA is currently evaluating its position on the safety of products made with BPA, in light of growing consumer concerns on this topic, we worked with manufacturers to phase out all baby bottles and other baby feeding products containing BPA in our Toys"R"Us and Babies"R"Us stores nationwide."

Water bottles make the switch
The water-bottle display at the Dick's Sporting Goods in Longmont, CO, is toward the front, standing before a row of registers. Three free-standing displays are filled with water bottles spread among four metal shelves on each side. Brands on display include Nalgene, Camelback, and H2O Refresh, with bottles in various sizes made from stainless steel; opaque, softer plastics; and hard, clear plastics. Just as with the Babies"R"Us bottle display, "BPA free" is displayed predominantly on the labels, packaging, and even product display.

The ubiquitous Nalgene bottle is here in plastic and stainless steel formats. On April 18, 2008, after several retailers, including the national REI chain, removed Nalgene bottles made with PC from their shelves, and studies pointed to BPA leaching from the containers into the water, Nalge Nunc International, the maker of the bottles, announced that it would switch to a new material, Tritan brand copolyester from Eastman Chemical Co.

The hard, clear bottles from Nalgene would be indistinguishable from their PC-based predecessor, and that fact is keeping Eastman very busy. The Kingsport, TN maker of chemicals and plastics has struck gold with its Tritan product, already announcing capacity expansions as the materials mix of toughness and resistance to heat and chemicals allows it to replace PC in many of its former food- and liquid-contact applications as consumer fears push the material out of the marketplace.

Understanding that its business boon comes from consumer fears regarding BPA and its suspected endocrine disruption, Eastman released results of a third-party research study finalized this spring that it says clears the chemical from any suspicion.

Empty grocery store shelves in Connecticut next
Much of the attention on BPA has focused on its presence in the hard, clear plastic, polycarbonate. But the chemical is also a component of the epoxy coating used to line many metal cans that contain food and drink. BPA bans are in affect or coming across country but nearly all of them exempt metal food packaging.

At least some of that can be attributable to the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA), which has lobbied on behalf of cans in various legislatures. One instance where the group failed its members is Connecticut, where a state law banning all BPA, including in metal packaging, is set to take affect in November.

Dr. John Rost, NAMPA chairman, who also works at a can-making company, Crown Technology, is quick to point out the safety function that epoxy linings play in cans, noting that according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there has not been a case of food-borne illness due to the failure of metal packaging in more than 33 years. "[Thirty-three years] is not surprisingly about the time we started using epoxy resin for the inside of metal cans," Rost says. (Listen to more from Dr. Rost here):

At that time, Rost says companies started lining the inside of metal cans with epoxy resin to prevent interaction between the food and the metal. "It's that function, which has played a vital role in food protection," Rost says, with the lining safeguarding the contents from microbial contaminants such as E. coli and listeria.

In addition to the safety boost it brings, unlike baby bottles, which found ready replacements in glass and copolyester, the industry has not had success to date in finding an alternative to epoxy in cans. Other plastics, including polyester and acrylic, which don't have BPA, are under consideration, but the trick, according to Rost, will be finding one that can withstand the high filling temperatures at many food-packaging plants.

Unlike baby and water bottles, Rost says there hasn't been a huge shift by food companies away from metal to other materials, like glass, for use in packaging. That said, Rost did admit that his organization, and the companies within it, are actively seeking out an alternative due to strong consumer opinion.

Back in Connecticut, NAMPA is still pushing for changes to the law as passed. "I think even the people in Connecticut understand that the current version of the legislation is really unworkable and could affect products being on the shelf," Rost says. In the case of canned liquid infant formula and the metal closures on glass baby-food jars, industry might have some alternatives in store. In spite of that, Rost thinks the Babies"R"Us baby-bottle shelf scene could be replayed in Connecticut this winter. "There's the potential that we could find replacements for [baby items], but right now we're anticipating there might be some products left off the shelf in Connecticut."

Contacted for comment, a representative of metal packaging giant, Ball (Broomfield, CO), referred to a March 2010 statement issued by the company on BPA, which said in part, "[Ball] is committed to responding to our customers' needs. If interest continues in non epoxy-based coatings, we will offer cans with those coatings when the coatings become commercially available."

Will Ball and other can makers have time to find an alternative, or, as was the case with Nalgene, will the buying public and retailers force the company's hand? 

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