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Is Wal-Mart Playing FDA?

Fortune Magazine has an opinion piece up blasting advocacy groups, retailers and politicians for working to get a chemical found in baby bottles and infant formula cans, called Bisphenol A (BPA), off the shelves. In the piece, Marc Gunther accuses retailers like Wal-Mart, CVS and Toys R’ Us of playing FDA by refusing to sell products containing the chemical. But retailers say their reasoning is that consumers do not want to buy them.

As we’ve reported, the National Institutes of Health and the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been investigating the chemical’s safety. A recent draft report from NIH suggests it might harm babies and young children.

Nonetheless, Gunther argues that the chemical must be safe because the FDA says it is.

"Bisphenol-A has been widely used since the 1950s," he argues. Yeah, well, so has lead. But let’s let him finish:

The Food and Drug Administration, as well as Japanese and European regulators, have no problems with it. Canada is about to ban it from baby bottles, but officials term the move purely precautionary.

To be sure, other scientists worry because animal studies have linked small doses of BPA to cancer and other health problems. But scientific debate isn’t driving the baby bottle war; a hard-hitting push by activist groups, politicians and trial lawyers is.

Okay, wait a second. The non-partisan Environmental Working Group — composed of expert scientists and analysts — is at the forefront of the activist groups Gunther mentions. In addition, some of the loudest voices on this matter are independent scientists.

More importantly, Gunther seems to argue that Americans have no reason to question federal actions (or inaction) on public health. And that agencies don’t need to be held accountable. We should just assume that, hey, they’re probably doing an OK job! But then, he says this:

…[T]he FDA typically uses industry research because it doesn’t have the money to conduct independent studies of the thousands of chemicals on the market. It then reviews what industry produces.

Yet another reason that consumers are right to scrutinize the FDA. The agency judges the safety of Bisphenol A (and other chemicals) by examining reports conducted by the people who manufacture and sell Bisphenol A. Naturally, that presents a conflict of interest.

Finally, when Gunther asked Wal-Mart why it’s no longer going to sell products with BPA, spokeswoman Linda Blakley said, "We sell products our customers want to buy. Our customers are telling us they want this option." Businesses like Wal-Mart are certainly not making a moral choice by banning BPA products — they’re doing what they do best: focusing on the bottom line. But in this case, their bottom line revolves around consumer concerns. And shouldn’t consumers have the right to demand the safest products they can get?

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