Not often I get serious, but this is one subject that’s nagged away at the back of my mind for the last few years….
Craft cans are taking over. More and more breweries are moving to can some or in many cases, all of their beer. The clamour is set to increase further as more and more breweries make the shift to canning in 2017. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I was to walk into Coppers at some point in the next 12 months to find more cans on the shelves than bottles.
Brief history of craft canning lines in this country, started with Camden’s, followed by Beavertown’s and then the mushroom cloud exploded. One of the main drivers in the explosion was the numerous mobile canning businesses starting to trade in the UK after successfully ploughing a business niche in the states.
What many of you don’t know is that around the time Beavertown were ordering their canning line, I was investigating a possible mobile canning business of my own. It was fascinating exploring the science behind the benefits of a can on the beer that we drink at home. Cans are far more resilient both externally and internally. Externally a dropped can may still retain its seal, a dropped bottle will almost certainly see beer and glass splinters all over the floor. Internally, the beer is far better protected from its worst enemy, namely light strike.
Cans have a great many benefits for beer consumers and I strongly believe in them as a dispense method. There’s nothing more satisfying than carrying a few cans for a train journey where the equivalent bottles would double the weight of your backpack. I had regular meetings with one of the world’s biggest can manufacturers, regularly visiting their U.K. factory and having a look around at developments etc.
But there was one point that we discussed extensively which to my mind seems to have been very much underplayed in the craft beer can explosion.
When I first started talking to those around me about canning beer they were sceptical. The set in stone image of beer at that time was that cans made beer taste ‘tinny’. The metal imparting some kind of flavour into the beer. But modern beer cans save that from happening by having a thin plastic lining inside to separate beer from metal.
It’s this thin plastic lining which contains Bisphenol A (BPA).
So what is BPA?
Bisphenol A is a chemical commonly used in the production of a great many plastics and resins including that which lines the cans that hold your favourite hop bomb.
Why is that an issue?
Well here’s where the waters get muddied. There has been some research which has discovered a trend between BPA and some pretty significant ailments. Breast Cancer UK are actively campaigning to get the routine exposure to BPA banned in the UK (http://www.breastcanceruk.org.uk/our-campaigns/no-more-bpa/). Their claim is that BPA acts an Endocrine Disrupting Chemical, and has been linked to breast cancer and well as prostate cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Potentially very serious issues.
Now I know this isn’t a beer issue, but it’s an issue that has an impact on this industry but also far beyond the industry. My grievance is the scale. I was first made aware of this 5 years ago. At that stage the manufacturer’s representative was happy to openly discuss BPA in the can and was very aware of the seriousness that this could potentially be taken. This had been a hot topic of debate in the US for some time before my discussions. However, despite assurances at that time that they were working on an alternative lining, still to this day there has been no change. This was given far greater profile in the US back in those days and just stop and imagine how widespread the use of BPA products there are in use globally. The scale of the money involved in this is massive. Now it may be that there is a replacement product in development which is imminently due to hit the market, but I can’t help but be sceptical. If the industry genuinely wanted to put safety first they would have long ago. I wonder if consumer perception of BPA would hasten a replacement being developed. I suspect it might.
That’s not to say that a replacement hasn’t been developed. It has. At the beginning of 2016, Campbells soup and Del Monte both announced that they were moving away from BPA linings in their cans, with a target of being BPA free by the middle of 2017 (https://www.campbellsoupcompany.com/newsroom/press-releases/campbell-to-remove-bpa-from-packaging-by-mid-2017/) (https://www.delmontefoods.com/brands). Is it too much to expect the entire industry to move away from BPA based products? Perhaps, but when the health of all their customers is at stake, wouldn’t you think businesses would react quicker to it? Should cost and profit be a barrier to doing your utmost to ensure the product your delivering to market is entirely safe?
Infact, lets just stop and consider the fact that there has been no conclusive proof of the dangers, or that it is no danger to us. How much would be invested in proper research if there was confidence in there not being an issue? Which stakeholders have the financial muscle to drive the research? If proof was available to show that there wasn’t an issue I’m sure that would have been widely broadcast by now. The flip side of that coin has me wondering why greater significance isn’t given to the potential danger of this substance. Just to be clear, the official Food Standards Agency guidance (https://www.food.gov.uk/science/bpa) is that the levels used in can linings are so low that they won’t have any effect. The European Food Standards Agency had a similar view (https://www.food.gov.uk/science/bpa/efsa-bpa-consultation#).
But I cant help thinking that if I punch a man, it hurts, doesn’t matter how hard I hit him. If I kill him then that’s a more severe case, but it doesn’t make a less severe punch acceptable. Any exposure to BPA has an impact, it may not be noticeable and it may not ultimately change the course of your life but it does have an effect. We’re at the mercy of current scientific thinking, which as we’ve seen many times before can very quickly change as more information comes to light. Maybe I’m just paranoid about this, but I can’t help feeling that this can’t be simply ignored by simply telling us that there isn’t enough bad stuff to kill you.
And to my mind there is no consideration given in that assessment, for the cumulative effect. Granted each use of BPA products when considered as a stand-alone item may make the potential levels so tiny that there wouldn’t be any significant effects, but when you consider how many products we use in our day to day life which make use of this chemical that actually the overall levels are much much higher. Again, the official guidance is that even at those combined levels it’s lower than what they say is the level at which it is harmful. But again, I’d rather not have a poke in the eye at half the strength needed to blind me… And if we accept the use of this product now, how long will it take for our unwitting exposure to creep up to dangerous levels. That’s why the consumer needs to be aware of this. That’s why the consumer needs to be able to make informed buying decisions.
This is little ol’ me, one small time blogger from a provincial town, on the edge of the craft beer market, which in turn makes up a tiny weeny small proportion of the global BPA-using products market. And yet someone has to talk about it. I was concerned about it enough to go over and over it with the can manufacturers. I fully understand that others will have more or less conviction or concern about it, but I can’t be the only one?
So while I am a huge fan of cans and the benefits that they bring to having super fresh hoppy beer in your own home, I really can’t believe that no better way has been developed to line these cans. The lack of profile given to the potential dangers that BPA can bring, leaves a worrying doubt in my mind.
This is all unsubstantiated however, the medical evidence is that BPA consumption is at ‘safe’ levels, but why would giants like Del Monte and Campbell’s be moving to BPA free cans if it had been conclusively proven to be ‘safe’? What is ‘safe’? Does it have no effect on my health? Or does it simply not have a big effect on my health?
It’s worth pointing out here that this isn’t simply a canned beer issue. BPA is also used in those little plastic seals in crown capped bottles, but obviously gives far smaller contact with the beer itself, and less exposure, less risk. The bigger point to make here is that this isn’t simply a beer issue, BPA is everywhere around us in our modern day lives.
So the equation here is that there is a potential health risk from BPA based products. There is a non-BPA alternative to line food and drink cans. And yet BPA based linings are still being used. That can’t be right. Money talks here and it stinks of profit motive over health risks.
I would love to get an overwhelming response to this post from within the canning industry telling me that the move to non-BPA products is imminent across the board. If Ive missed the news that this is the case then I would welcome someone to tell me just that.
I imagine that most breweries are completely unaware of this issue, but each of you, ask your can suppliers about this issue. They will have information on it. I think the more you know about this issue the better!
I want to be able to enjoy a delicious canned #trainbeer without worrying about the real journey it’s taking me on!