How to judge the chemical industry: Deeds, not words


“Deeds, not words.” – Max Roach


Just before Congress adjourned for the Thanksgiving recess, the Senate spent several days considering passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, more commonly referred to as the Food Safety Bill.  Senator Dianne Feinstein of California fought to include in the bill a provision that would ban the use of the toxic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in sippy cups, baby bottles, baby food and infant formula.

Due to the opposition of the food industry--as represented by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade association for food companies and Conglomerates --Senator Feinstein’s language was scaled back until it banned BPA only in sippy cups and baby bottles, and not the food packaging that the grocery manufacturers care about, such as baby food and infant formula.  Still, her compromise language was an important step forward in the ongoing efforts to protect children from exposure to BPA and, more generally, the thousands of other chemicals that are in use that we either know are unsafe, or for which we don’t really know whether they are safe or not, but that make their way into our food, our homes and our bodies.  The grocery manufacturers were willing to live with this compromise, and so was the ranking member (meaning senior Republican) of the Senate Committee that was in charge of moving the food safety legislation, Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

But then, the chemical industry got involved and acted diligently and effectively behind the scenes to kill the Feinstein provision – preventing it from being included in the food safety bill which the Senate passed yesterday, or even coming up for a vote. 

The chemical industry only needed one Senator who was willing to oppose removing a toxic chemical from baby bottles and sippy cups, and they found their man in Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina.  And, if he wasn’t available to stand up for the chemical industry against the health of infants and toddlers, well, they probably had a few more “go to” Senators who could help out in a pinch.

The chemical industry isn’t exactly hiding from this recent accomplishment.  In fact, its major trade association, the American Chemistry Council (formerly known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association) circulated the story identifying itself as the group that scuttled the bill as its Top Story in the November 18th edition of its “SmartBrief.” Senator Burr’s opposition to Senator Feinstein’s amendment was first reported in Greenwire (subscription required), and subsequently picked up in the New York Times on-line (the story circulated by the industry).

The same day that it succeeded in killing the Feinstein provision (November 17th), the trade association chose to hold a press briefing for Washington reporters featuring Cal Dooley, the President of the ACC, ostensibly to reaffirm the commitment of his association’s member companies to broad reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)--a statement that could not possibly be squared with the role his association was playing on BPA at exactly the same time. 

It was a little reminiscent of the scene in The Godfather Part II when Michael Corleone is attending the baptism of his nephew at the same time his henchmen are knocking off his rivals across the city.   It scored high on the hypocrisy meter, and raised even more questions about the credibility of the trade associations’ claims to support reform of our currently broken system for regulating unsafe chemicals.

It may be worth noting here that, even as the chemical council was killing the Feinstein compromise, Canada, Denmark, and France had all already banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.  And since then, on Thanksgiving, the European Commission – which represents all the countries of the EU – announced its own EU-wide ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, effective March 1, 2011.  On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates also announced its intention to ban BPA In baby bottles.

Over and over, the industry has talked about its commitment to reform, and brandished a set of “principles” that it identifies as guideposts for reform, while its actions, in both Congress and the agencies (as well as at the state level) have been uniformly in opposition to any effort at reform, large or small, broad or narrow.  And, each day that passes, the U.S. falls further behind Europe and other countries, including China, in establishing controls and protections from unsafe chemicals.

In my next post, I’ll look a little more closely at what the ACC President had to say about TSCA reform in his press call with reporters, and how the industry’s rhetoric squares with reality.