Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical that has been present since the 1960s in plastic used in consumer products, including reusable water bottles, sippy cups, and baby bottles, to prevent cracking. BPA is also used in the protective lining inside metal-based food and beverage cans to avoid corrosion. In recent years BPA has become the focus of a heated debate. Citing an increasing body of scientific evidence, consumer and health advocates argue that there is a link between disruptions in the endocrine system and the consumption of products packaged with materials that include BPA. Certain studies have identified BPA as a risk factor in breast and prostate cancer, early puberty, childhood obesity, autism, and hyperactivity. Accordingly, critics of BPA believe it is a substance unfit for human consumption and have urged a ban on its use in food and beverage containers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services maintain that low level exposure to BPA does not pose a serious risk to human health based on studies employing standardized toxicity tests. However, both agencies have noted some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children. The FDA has since undertaken to do further research into the potential health risks associated with BPA.

In attempt to put pressure on the FDA to clarify its stance on BPA, just over three years ago the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a petition with the FDA challenging its position that exposure to BPA in low levels is safe. The petition requested that the FDA ban the use of BPA as a food additive or in any substance that may become a component of a food product, as defined by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). For several months, the FDA delayed responding to the NRDC’s petition.

Prompted by the FDA’s failure to respond, NRDC filed suit in 2010 seeking judicial intervention that would require the FDA to decide by a date certain whether the use of BPA, particularly in food packaging and any material likely to come in contact with food, should be banned. In a settlement agreement, the parties agreed FDA would make its decision about the use of BPA by March 31, 2012 – a date that is rapidly approaching. The FDA’s decision will come on the heels of France’s decision in early February 2012 to ban the use of BPA in all food packaging.

What impact would a ban of BPA have on industry if imposed? Almost certainly as companies adapted to the new ban, their costs would increase. The extent of those costs would likely differ based on the size of the company and the extent of required changes to production. The disruption may be dampened a bit because several food companies have anticipated the issue. A recent report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that several major U.S. companies have already begun using alternative packaging methods to comply with BPA bans on both state and international levels, and to meet increasing consumer demand for BPA-free products. Eden Foods, Muir Glen, Edward & Son, Trader Joe’s, Vital Choice, Wild Planet Foods, Oregon’s Choice Gourmet and Eco Fish already use BPA-free containers for some or all of their products. In addition, Heinz, Hain Celestial and ConAgra have begun taking steps toward eliminating the use of BPA in their packaging.

It will be interesting to see what decision the FDA will announce by the end of this month.