Why Coca-Cola Isn't Ditching BPA

Coke canBPA, an estrogen-mimicking chemical found in food and drink can linings, adhesives, and many plastics, has been repeatedly linked to breast cancer, early puberty, infertility, and other health problems. The stuff is really bad for you. And yet Coca-Cola, a company that sells more cans than almost anyone else, refuses to think about removing BPA from its linings. Now there's one more thing to worry about when you drink that delicious chemical-filled sludge known as Coke (yes, we're guilty, too).

A recent Coca-Cola shareholder resolution to remove BPA from can linings was approved by 26% (one in four) shareholders. As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy group, claims that a 10% vote is usually enough to spur a company to action. Coke's response? The Vancouver Sun reports:

Muhtar Kent, chairman and chief executive officer of The Coca-Cola Company, told shareholders that the science just isn't there to justify a shift away from BPA, saying if the company had any doubt "about the safety of our packaging, we would not continue to use it. It's that simple." Kent said that this doesn't mean the company isn't exploring alternatives, but emphasized the beverage giant isn't in the packaging business and takes its direction from regulatory agencies.

What's the science? Well, a recent study concluding that BPA is safe was recently discovered to have been written by researchers with strong ties to the chemical industry. You might think that a company that produces such feel-good products as Honest Tea and FUZE Healthy Infusions would at least consider the slew of not bought-and-paid-for BPA studies that have been released in recent years (and the fact that the substance has been banned in baby bottles in Europe, Canada, and even China, where the toothpaste can kill you)—but that doesn't seem to be happening.

"I think they just feel they would be too vulnerable if they admit there might be a problem," says Michael Passoff, Senior Strategist at As You Sow. " They feel they have to defend this product no matter what, where other companies we're seeing recognize the risk. Coke is the only [company we talk to] that just says there is no risk whatsoever, the science you're reading is wrong." According to Passoff, companies that are paying attention to potential BPA hazards include Heinz, General Mills, and Hains Celestial, which are all launching BPA-free product lines.

It's possible that Coca-Cola has asserted its position on BPA so many times that it's fearful of what will happen if it reverses. And it's true, basically admitting they've been poisoning us all these years might not go over so well. But that still won't make it any less true.

The thing is, Coke may be making a bad financial decision even if it genuinely believes that it is correct and BPA is safe. "As investors, that's our concern—that Coke is not prepared for market change, that Coke is just ignoring growing scientific concern, regulatory action, and consumer backlash," says Passoff. If BPA regulations are eventually passed in the U.S., Coke shareholders should hope that the company's scientists—or its can manufacturer's scientists—have secretly been slaving away at finding a decent alternative to its BPA-lined cans. Because if they haven't, everyone's favorite canned caffeine vendor (RIP Four Loko) will have to scramble pretty fast.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Elsie esq.]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

Read More: 6 Steps to Avoiding BPA in Your Daily Life

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  • Don Jarrell

    This is clearly a controversy, but in one serious respect, Ariel has done something that is at least as bad as the alleged "bad studies" and that helps turn controversy into pointless shouting matches.

    Most decisions in business are trade-offs. As was mentioned about DDT in Mr. Reich's rational and balanced post, things should not be demonized without *considering* the loss of the whatever benefits they provide. Ariel never mentioned (1) why BPA is used by Coke's packaging folks and was used by most packaging companies, (2) what those converts are now using, (3) how well the replacement performs relative to BPA for its intended purpose, and (4) just how safe and well-researched the replacement materials are.

    As such, this article is more a case of tribal alignment ritual (along several lines) than it is a rational and balanced airing of the issue.

    As for Ruth's observation that the current product is not as enjoyable as the Coke of old was remembered to be, consider the replacement of cane sugar with genetically-modified corn syrup as its sweetener. There is some pretty good research on that, and the typical decision maker for many products is a complex cost issue involving agri-business lobbying, subsidies and other intrigues. We here in Texas can still buy Coke bottled in Mexico containing cane sugar and, believe me, it tastes better.

  • Rob Day

    Thank you for this reply. I couldn't help but simmer with annoyance while reading this article which amounts to nothing more than a soap box rant rather than a typical piece of FastCompany Journalism.

    Your points on how this article is no better than the "bad science" Ariel refers to is dead on. The fact that companies are moving away from BPA DOES NOT prove that it is bad for you. It shows that this particular issue is getting a lot of press and today's companies are so law suit scared and market pressured that they flip at a hat regardless of what reports say.

    Further, this statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding in how and why companies do what they do. For example, if a negative incident occurred due to consumer misuse, regardless off instructions etc., companies are often STILL attacked especially in this information age. To take it a step further, if the CPSC gets involved and issues a blanket, reactionary statement to a product or line of products REGARDLESS of evidence, the buyers these manufacturers sell to will be forced to remove all of their product from shelf - yes even without a recall. This is simply a reaction to pressure and nothing more and it happens ALL OF THE TIME!

    The only good thing I can say about this article is I am glad it set the tone at the beginning and I knew it was going to be a one sided slam fest.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Don, my intention was never start "pointless shouting matches"--it was simply to point out that the decision to publicly reject the mounds of scientific research on BPA is a short-sighted decision that could have serious business repercussions. But you're right, I should have elaborated on at least one thing here: There is no great alternative to BPA in acidic Coke cans yet (the chemical is used in epoxy lining, which gets rid of the metallic flavor that would result without it). But whereas other companies are publicly working on finding alternatives, Coke is rejecting that there is a problem in the first place--and that could be dangerous when regulations eventually come to pass.

  • Ruth Ledesma

    I'm old enough to remember when Coke became available in cans rather than *just* in glass bottles. I could taste the difference: not nearly as good as bottled Coke (especially when just barely frozen).

    So maybe it's this BPA crap that ruins the taste for those of us who appreciate what soft drink quality used to be.

  • Rob Day

    I will assure you this has nothing to do with BPA. If this were true then the same pure beverage served from an older plastic water bottle and a can would taste the same. They do not. It is the aluminum around your lips and even the smell of the can itself that will affect your taste experience.

  • Chris Reich

    Generally I find Ms. Schwartz to be a bit sensational in her posts but when it comes to health and safety issues, it takes sensational wording to spur action.

    A problem we have in this country is funding independent studies. Who will pay for a real study? Who has the interest and the money to prove a product safe? Those with a vested interest. Those with health and safety concerns generally don't have the money to fund the necessary research.

    A second problem is time. You can't draw a quick conclusion from most health related research. Remember the cigarette and saccharin studies? They were criticized for applying tens of thousands times typical dose to rats. They had to concentrate exposure to accelerate the results but at the same time, it brings the results into question. Certainly exposing a rat to the equivalent of 20,000 cigarettes per day for a year will have negative consequences to the rat. So does that invalidate the study? That very point was argued for years. So then, do we wait years and measure the damage done by BPA and then decide whether or not to ban the substance?

    Finally we have the danger of going from bad to worse. There are countless examples of this from foods to pesticides. The banning of DDT has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from malaria. Research might have mitigated DDT's negative environmental impact or produced an alternative.

    I agree with Ariel. The smart move is always to look out for your consumer. If I had the slightest reason to believe that I produced a harmful product, I would modify or pull the product. Ethics,

    Disclaimer. I basically believe that Coke is a poison anyway. Sure, a little won't kill you but there is no 'good' dose of Coke. So maybe articles like this will move some consumers off the product entirely.

    Disclaimer 2. I occasionally drink Coke, Pepsi, et al. It's like factory meat. I don't like the way chickens are raised but I eat them. So there is hypocrisy in all of us.

    Chris Reich

  • Larry Nirenberg

    Let's assume for the moment that its a jump ball as to the risks of BPA. That's enough in my estimation to switch to non-BPA plastic liners w/o the need to brand Coke part of a parade of Lemmings.

  • Claudio Silva

    Although I have no idea if BPA is safe or not, I know for sure that stating that it's not safe just because other companies are banning it, is not good enough. If you can go to the trouble of pointing out why the Pro-BPA study isn't worthy, surely the same can be done to anti -BPA studies, instead we get an article saying they have to ban BPA because others are doing it too. This article is...well...poor.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Claudio, a number of countries have already banned BPA in baby bottles because of concerns, and Canada recently declared it a toxic substance.

  • Andrew Krause

    Coke refuses to remove BPA from its linings. You refuse to listen to your readership and reform your incoherent and histrionic writing style. I think that makes it about even.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    There is also a link in the post that reviews a bunch of the anti-BPA studies (there have been dozens over the years).