As leaks go, this one was scandalous.
A year ago, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Washington Post wrote about the minutes of a strategy session among grocery and chemical industry lobbyists. They were brainstorming about how to defeat laws that would ban the chemical bisphenol A in Connecticut and California.
The group doubted it could convince a scientist to serve as its spokesperson, the minutes say, a nod to mounting evidence that the chemical may result in birth defects and disrupts hormones in children.
So they would resort to "fear tactics," emphasizing the harm a chemical ban might have on the poor and minorities. A pregnant mother would be the "Holy Grail" spokesperson, according to the summary of the gathering at the Cosmos Club, a tony Washington, D.C., social club.
The plan backfired in Connecticut.
The state’s attorney general read about the meeting and blasted the campaign for "confusion and concealment.' Connecticut lawmakers had just passed a bisphenol A ban for baby bottles and formula cans.
In California, though, the plan seems to have worked like a charm.
Chemical industry lobbyists bought a full-page newspaper ad depicting an empty shopping cart in a desert, suggesting the chemical ban might leave grocery shelves bare. And a trade group representing America’s leading baby formula makers have warned lawmakers that the ban might impact women who rely on a state program for baby formula, a claim that program’s leaders refute.
The efforts center around Senate Bill 797, a law that died in the Assembly last year but is expected to come up for a vote next week. It would ban the chemical bisphenol A, known as "BPA," from baby bottles, sippy cups and the linings of liquid and powder baby formula containers.
The proposed ban comes in response to research showing the chemical can damage a baby’s developing brain, as well as the FDA's call for more research because it has “some concern” about the chemical. Supporters of the ban include the Breast Cancer Fund, SEIU, California Nurses Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Those opposing the law include the chemical industry, baby formula makers and grocers. Their argument tends to be that the science around BPA is not yet strong enough to justify a ban.
"This is a real David and Goliath fight – a battle between babies and the powerful chemical industry that has employed more than a dozen lobbyists, and is spending millions of dollars to kill my bill," bill author Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, said in a statement to California Watch.
Here’s a bit more analysis on how the roadmap from the leaked meeting minutes have been playing out in Sacramento:
This is what the meeting minutes say on that topic: "Attendees suggested using fear tactics (e.g. 'Do you want to have access to baby food anymore?')."
The full-page ad in The Sacramento Bee and a slate mailer both show an empty grocery cart. (Both were paid for by "BPAfacts.org," a now-defunct website that dubbed itself a project of the American Chemistry Council.)
The mailer, which says "Your favorite products my soon disappear," backfired with at least one lawmaker. Assembly member Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, said the apparent scare tactic motivated him to vote in favor of the ban last year.
"Legislation should live or die by its merits, not by an ad campaign by industry," Portantino said in an interview. "You can’t intimidate legislators like that."
As far as the real potential for grocery shelves to sit bare, the Washington Post examined the grocery and can-making industries' efforts to find replacements for BPA. One source told the Post that government efforts to ban the chemical aside, the search for a replacement in canned foods is proving difficult:
"It doesn't matter what FDA says. If consumers decide they don't want BPA, you don't want it to be in a can that consumers don't want to buy," said one source at a major U.S. food company who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Major food companies declined to talk publicly about their efforts to find a replacement for BPA linings. "We don't have a safe, effective alternative, and that's an unhappy place to be," the source said. "No one wants to talk about that."
The Post reported, though, that some companies have announced plans to eliminate the chemical in cans, but have not disclosed their mode of replacing it.
The Poor and Minorities
From the meeting minutes: "Focusing on the impact of BPA bans on minorities (Hispanic and African-American) and poor is also important. The members want to put the danger of BPA into perspective."
One industry group that was not included in the list of those present during the strategy meeting seems to have employed this strategy.
The International Formula Council represents leading makers of baby formula, including Enfamil Formula-maker Mead Johnson and Abbott Nutrition, which makes the popular Similac baby formula.
Last year that group sent a letter to California lawmakers noting that the BPA ban could "drastically reduce the availability of baby formula." The next sentence reminds lawmakers that "a large number of the infants in California" rely on the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program for baby formula.
"If enacted, this bill may unnecessarily restrict choice of infant formulas currently available to California infants and moms," the letter concludes.
Not so fast, though, says Karen Farley, program manager for the California WIC program. She noted that 96 percent of WIC mothers opt for powder formula. That’s a product that is already "BPA Free," according to the Abbott Nutrition website.
"The WIC moms don’t want BPA in their formula," Farley said. "They want it out."
Farley said the ban is especially important for the low-income women she represents, as they tend to shop at stores that might carry BPA-containing products that don’t sell at higher-end outlets.
The scientist and the pregnant woman
From the meeting minutes:
The committee doubts obtaining a scientific spokesperson is attainable. Their 'Holy Grail' spokesperson would be a 'pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA.'
Sarah Uhl, a Connecticut environmental advocate who’s watched efforts to fight BPA bans, has seen no sign of the “Holy Grail.”
“As far as I know, they still don’t have a pregnant spokesperson,” said Uhl, an environmental health coordinator for Clean Water Action, which supported the BPA ban in Connecticut.
In fact, the same formula companies that are fighting the ban in California are reaching out to formula-buying women with a different tone. Here’s what Abbott Nutrition tells visitors to its website:
Abbott is pleased to share that it has now achieved 'BPA free' status in all of its Similac® brand powdered infant formula products. 'BPA free' means that no BPA is present at quantifiable levels using the lowest governmental standards of testing for infant formula.
Abbott is leading the industry in its work with government authorities, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health Canada and our suppliers. Abbott products have been tested for BPA using the most sensitive and conservative tests available, and levels are undetectable for all powdered products and consistently 50 times below international safety standards for other infant nutrition products.
Abbott is a member of the International Formula Council, which fought the ban last year. (A spokesperson for the group said its stance is unchanged this year.)
Abbott listed SB 797, the BPA-ban bill, as a subject of lobbying in public disclosures showing that it spent $50,000 to exert influence about that bill and others.
*This post was updated to reflect the names of the newspapers that first wrote about the meeting minutes.