WALNUT CREEK -- Walnut Creek-based Del Monte Foods will stop using the chemical Bisphenol A in its canned products amid consumers' fears that the substance is harmful to their health.
Beginning in May, Del Monte fruit and tomato products, as well as nearly 100 percent of its vegetables, will convert to non-BPA can linings.
"It's something we've been working on for five to seven years, and it's been a complex journey to find alternatives that would meet our quality guidelines," said Scott Butler, vice president of research and development, quality assurance and operation services for Del Monte.
The move comes as concerns that BPA, used commonly in canned foods, increases risks of cancer, brain damage, hormonal problems and development issues in fetuses, infants and children. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration claims that BPA is safe at the current levels used in food, in 2012 it banned the sale of baby bottles and children's cups that contain BPA.
Other manufacturers are abandoning BPA, including Campbell's Soup Co., which is converting to BPA-free canning for its soups, gravies, SpaghettiOs pasta and Swanson broth products, beginning this year.
The process of switching from the commonly used BPA product in cans to those without it can be a challenging one. Because BPA has been used in the food industry for decades and proven to be effective as a can-lining component, companies making the switch need to ensure that new formulas will do well with a long shelf life and not react badly with foods.
It's also a costly effort to make the switch to BPA-free products. In addition to the cost of research and development, Butler said most of the alternatives to can lining with BPA are costlier than ones with it.
Campbell's, in a company statement, said that part of what has delayed its transition to BPA-free cans for so long is the cost involved. The company first announced its intention to convert to BPA-free cans in 2012.
"The cost of transitioning our entire portfolio to non-BPA linings, while not material to our earnings, is significant," Campbell's wrote in a statement on its website. "We've had to balance making this investment with other business priorities."
The moves come as controversy has swirled over California's latest BPA requirements.
Under California's Proposition 65, which requires that businesses warn the public about high levels of chemicals in products or places, BPA was added last year to a list of about 800 chemicals that require notifications. Because it's too late to add warnings to many of the already produced cans with BPA, stores would normally be required to post notices on the shelves with those products. But California officials are afraid this would be confusing to consumers, said Allan Hirsch, chief deputy director of the state Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
Instead, the state EPA is trying to limit the warning requirement to that of one post in stores near the checkout station, which is being met with backlash.
"Food companies knew this was coming," said Charles Margulis of Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health, pointing to companies like ConAgra Foods, Inc., which made the transition to BPA-free cans last year.
Consumers are meeting the news of the switch with mixed reactions.
"I definitely think it's a good thing, but as a shopper, I don't really take it into consideration," said Pleasant Hill Safeway shopper Shontal Behan.
Del Monte's Butler said the push for BPA-free packaging has come from a small but vocal group of customers. Del Monte products reach at least 60 percent of American households, according to the company.