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BPA in Foodstuffs Does Not Pose Health Risks, Concludes EFSA

Hong Kong companies exporting foodstuffs in plastic containers or food contact materials to the EU will likely be relieved to learn of a new recent verdict on the chemical substance Bisphenol A (BPA), from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). On 21 January 2015, EFSA declared that BPA does not pose health risks to consumers of any age group, including unborn infants, at current exposure levels.

EFSA has taken this view pursuant to a seemingly comprehensive re-evaluation that it carried out. This latest view comes about in stark contrast to the approach taken by France, which only this year, on 1 January 2015 to be exact, began to apply stringent restrictions in relation to this controversial substance (see: Business Alert-EU, 30 January 2015 for more information). While EFSA concluded that BPA in foodstuffs presents no health concerns, France has now banned all food packaging containing BPA.

BPA is said to be a substance that affects the endocrine system, as it is able to interact with the body’s hormones. The substance is found in polycarbonate plastics that are used in food contact materials, including reusable plastic tableware and protective linings in cans that contain food and beverages. It is also used in thermal paper, commonly used for cash-register receipts. Due to doubts over the risks caused by BPA, the EU enacted a ban on the manufacture, import and sale of BPA-containing infant feeding bottles in 2011.

Despite the latest claims from EFSA – which is the agency of the European Union providing independent scientific advice on existing and emerging risks associated with the food chain – it has recommended lowering the EU limit even further, when compared to a draft opinion that had been issued for the purposes of consultation a year ago.

Hong Kong traders interested in this subject may recall that in a January 2014 draft scientific opinion, EFSA had recommended reducing the current safe limit – the tolerable daily intake (TDI) – from 50 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day to only 5. The term TDI relates to the amount that a person can imbibe on a daily basis and over a lifetime but without encountering adverse effects.

Further to the consultation, and due to both new evidence and doubts, EFSA’s Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes, Flavourings and Processing Aids (CEF) has recommended lowering the TDI to 4 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day. The recommendation is said to be set out  in EFSA’s final “Scientific opinion on the risks to public health related to the presence of Bisphenol A (BPA) in foodstuffs.” The opinion was adopted in December 2014 and published on 21 January 2015.

The TDI reduction is intended to take into account uncertainties concerning potential health effects of BPA on the mammary gland and on the reproductive, metabolic, neurobehavioural and immune systems. It should be noted, however, that the newly recommended TDI is temporary, and awaits the outcome of a long-term study in rats. This should, in turn, assist in reducing the uncertainties.

Despite the uncertainties, EFSA has underlined that the highest approximations for so-called aggregated exposure, which is dietary (mainly from protective can linings) and from all other sources including dust, till receipts and cosmetics, are still three to five times lower than its updated TDI. BPA residues are capable of migrating into foodstuffs (including drinks) and then be ingested by consumers. As for BPA from thermal paper and cosmetics, these are capable of being absorbed via the skin. The substance can likewise be inhaled from dust, and there can also be exposure through toys.

Notably, this was the first occasion that EFSA took into account exposure from non-dietary sources when assessing BPA. However, it drew attention to the fact that there was a lack of supporting data on dermal exposure, for example how much BPA the body absorbs through skin by touching thermal paper. This in turn increases the uncertainties about estimates from both till receipts and cosmetics.

EFSA is said to have initiated its re-evaluation after a large number of new studies led to the belief that adverse health risks connected to BPA actually exist. An EFSA statement on the opinion recounted that, after weighing up the significant body of scientific evidence, its panel concluded that high doses of BPA – more than a hundred times above the TDI – are likely to have an adverse effect on the kidney and liver, and could also cause effects on the mammary gland in animals.

Interestingly, EFSA discovered that dietary exposure to BPA was 4 to 15 times lower than it had earlier estimated in a 2006 assessment, depending on the age group concerned. Dietary exposure is felt to be most prevalent among infants and toddlers, but still more than 4 times below the updated TDI. Canned food and, to a lesser extent, non-canned meat and meat products, were identified as major contributors to dietary BPA exposure for all age groups.

Reactions from industry stakeholders to the EFSA opinion have been largely positive. Plastics industry organisations hailed the verdict, which – simply put – held that “BPA is safe”. They also criticised France’s law banning the substance, which has proven to be extremely divisive. As noted above, BPA is now banned from all food packaging in France.

A spokesperson for PlasticsEurope has stated that “this EFSA conclusion on BPA should be used as the basis for consistent and harmonised European food safety regulation, and should be respected by all EU Member States.” The spokesperson highlighted the opinion’s revelation that exposure from all sources was very low and well below the new safe limit for all age groups, concluding categorically that “BPA poses no health risk to consumers of any age group.”

In contrast, the Policy Director of the UK NGO, the CHEM Trust, has argued that it was difficult to conclude that BPA was “unambiguously safe”. She held that the updated TDI would probably need to be reduced again, particularly for pregnant women, young children and adolescents, because, “as was the case with the neurotoxic substance lead, it often takes time for the full toxicity of any substance to be unravelled”.

Despite the controversies that still seem to plague this substance, EFSA’s latest re-evaluation is likely to have a positive impact on the EU’s and Member States’ lawmakers. While uncertainties continue to abound in respect of exposure via, especially, non-food contact materials, the results of the re-evaluation will have to be seriously considered by those that favour ever more stringent laws against the substance – including France.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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