Bisphenol A (BPA) and food packaging 

(May 2009)

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) keeps a close eye on issues related to the migration of chemicals from packaging and into food, and over the past few years has become aware of a number of reports claiming that chemicals in plastic containers may contaminate the food or liquid inside.

What is BPA?

Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical used as the starting material for the production of polycarbonate plastics and synthetic resins.  
BPA is found in items or containers that come into contact with foodstuffs such as drinking vessels, baby bottles, plastic tableware and the internal coating on tins for tinned-food.
In some circumstances, chemicals in food packaging can migrate into the food product, and vice versa, depending on the nature of the packaging and the food contained within.  

What are the health effects of BPA?

Bisphenol A does not cause cancer. BPA belongs to a group of substances which can act in a similar way to some hormones and as such are sometimes called ‘endocrine disruptors’. Some studies in laboratory animals suggest that low levels of (consumed) BPA may have an effect on the reproductive system.   Similar consequences in consumers at these low concentrations are considered unlikely because  BPA is rapidly inactivated and then excreted in the urine.

Are very low levels of BPA in food of a concern?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently completed a review of the scientific literature for BPA and determined a maximum daily ‘safe limit’ for BPA. They concluded that the estimated total daily intake of BPA by a bottle-fed baby would be less than 10% of the ‘safe level’ for babies, when the bottles were cleaned using normal domestic conditions, and about 20% of the ‘safe limit’, when the bottles were cleaned under exaggerated conditions including the use of boiling water or strong solvents. In adults, the estimated daily intake from canned foods and beverages would be about 5% of the ‘safe limit’. Also  a draft review by the US Food and Drug Authority (FDA) determined that intakes of Bisphenol A for the most vulnerable segments of the population were well within the safe level.

FSANZ has assessed the risk to infants from exposure to BPA and concurred with the conclusions reached by the US FDA and the EFSA that the levels of exposure are very low and do not pose a significant health risk.

The move by overseas manufacturers to stop using BPA in baby bottles is a voluntary action and not the result of a specific action by regulators.  However, FSANZ would support the use of alternatives to BPA in baby bottles provided they are safe.

FSANZ will continue to examine reviews from regulatory agencies and papers in the peer-reviewed literature, as they become available and determine whether any further action is required.

On the 12 May 2009 a group of investigators from the Harvard School of Public Health published a report in the journal ‘Environmental Health Perspectives’ entitled ‘Use of Polycarbonate Bottles and Urinary Bisphenol A Concentrations’. The purpose of the study was t o examine the association between use of polycarbonate drinking bottles and urinary bisphenol A (BPA) concentrations in humans.

The study concluded that the concentration of BPA in the urine of 77 college age students increased following ingestion of cold beverages in polycarbonate drinking bottles. Background levels of BPA in urine were reduced by avoiding consumption of fluids from polycarbonate drinking vessels for one week (a washout phase).

FSANZ has reviewed this study and has found that it only confirms that inactive BPA excreted in urine may be derived from polycarbonate plastics drinking. BPA is metabolised differently in humans relative to that in rats. As it is effectively deactivated (turned into a safe form) in the liver and is then excreted in inactive form in the urine. This study does not indicate that these levels of BPA pose a risk to human health.  

How is food packaging regulated?

FSANZ regulates food packaging materials through Standard 1.4.3 –Articles and Materials in Contact with Food.  Standard 1.4.3 deals with food contact materials in general terms, and does not specify individual packaging materials for food contact or how they should be produced or used.  

However, with respect to plastic packaging products, the standard refers to the Australian Standard for Plastic Materials for Food Contact Use, AS 2070-1999.  This Standard provides a guide to industry about the production of plastic materials for food contact use.   AS 2070, in turn, refers to regulations of the United States and European Economic Community directives relevant to the manufacture and use of plastics.   In addition, the various Australian state and territory Food Acts make reference to food packaging issues