France overturns ban on BPA in export products

Food cans are often coated in a resin that contains BPA. [Andrew Writer/Flickr]

A ruling by the French Constitutional Council has undermined the country’s ban on Bisphenol A. France’s highest court ruled that manufacturers can continue export products that contain the substance. EURACTIV France reports

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a substance used in the manufacture of many everyday objects, including plastic bottles, food processors and metal food containers. Some scientists suspect that exposure to the chemical, for example by eating canned food, can disrupt the body’s hormone functions.

In a decision on 17 September 2015, the Constitutional Council overturned the ban on the use of BPA in food containers destined for the export market. The sale and import of the substance remains prohibited in France itself.

The Constitutional Council’s decision to partially subvert the French ban on BPA has re-opened the scientific debate on the dangers of the hormone disrupter. This has been seen as a defeat for the French ecology minister, Ségolène Royal.

The court arrived at this paradoxical decision to protect the competitiveness of French businesses, as the use of the substance is still permitted in the European Union.

“The decision of the Constitutional Council is astonishing. It feels like we have gone back to the time of Chernobyl, when we were told that the radioactive cloud had stopped at the French border,” MEP Michèle Rivasi (Greens) said.

Heated scientific debate

The Constitutional Council did not consider itself competent to pass judgement on the scientific basis for the ban, nor on the conformity of the French ban with European law.

For the plastics industry, the French ban on products that contain BPA is “scientifically unfounded”. A position supported by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which concluded in 2015 that Bisphenol A did not present a threat to consumer health.

Michel Loubry, a regional director of the industry group PlasticsEurope, welcomed the decision and questioned the ongoing battle between France and the European Commission over the risks posed by the material. “In the French industry, 40% of metal packaging that contains Bisphenol A is for the export market,” he said.

The recommendations of the health authorities in most other countries, including German and the United States, are very different. France, whose concern over the harmful effects of BPA is partially shared by Denmark, is still the only country to have banned the substance.

“The ecology ministry is the main supervisor of the French food safety authority (ANSES),” said Michel Loubry, sceptical of the agency’s independence. In an analysis of Bisphenol A published last June, ANSES confirmed its previous decision to ban the substance, but accepted in a footnote that very low exposure did not pose a health risk.

Two Directorates General of the European Commission opened infringement procedures against France in March this year. DG Industry for hindering entrepreneurial freedom, and DG Health for France’s non-respect of the Dangerous Substances Directive.

>> Read: Plastics industry raises pressure over BPA ban

Michèle Rivasi, a French Green MEP, said, "It is high time to fix a precise legal framework on hormone disrupters at a European level. The European Commission should have done this in 2013, but it has still not happened. Because once again, at both European and French level, the manufacturers and lobbies of all kinds put immense pressure on the institutions to make sure their interests are protected." 

Bisphenol A (BPA), together with other chemicals, is used in the manufacturing of plastics and resins. It is found in many everyday objects (cutlery, kettles, coffee machines, teapots, food mixers...), food packaging and bottles. BPA also helps to preserve the flavour of foods and protect them against contamination from microorganisms.

However, numerous studies have demonstrated the negative health effects of exposure to bisphenol A, particularly to the liver, the kidneys, the reproductive system and the mammary glands.

On 1 January 2010, France banned the use of BPA in products that come into direct contact with food for babies and young children, like feeding bottles. An EU-wide ban followed in January 2011.

>> Read: EU bans baby bottles made with Bisphenol A

But the French government then decided to go further and introduced a new law banning the use of BPA in all food packaging from 1 January 2015.

In a report presented to the French Parliament, it identified 73 alternatives to bisphenol A which it claimed could be used from 1 January. The report was heavily criticised by industry group PlasticsEurope, which said alternatives "either do not exist or do not perform to the same level as BPA for different applications".

>> Read: French government and plastics lobby clash over Bisphenol A

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