The EU’s food watchdog has proposed to cut the safety limit for bisphenol A – a chemical found in some plastic packaging and cans – by 90% on a temporary basis over concerns it could be harmful to human health.

The European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) said it had reviewed 450 studies on BPA, and the evidence suggested it was “likely” to have adverse effects on the liver, kidney and mammary gland, with further adverse effects on reproductive, nervous, immune, metabolic and cardiovascular health also possible.

It therefore proposed to lower the tolerable daily intake (TDI) threshold from 50 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day to 5 micrograms.

However, there were uncertainties around the effects of BPA and “much of the science underpinning these conclusions is still developing”, so the reduction in TDI should be temporary, with a view to being reassessed once results from a major study by the US’s National Toxicology Program (NTP) were in, Efsa said. It is not yet clear when those results will be published.

“Our conclusions are as definitive as they can be in light of current data”

Iona Pratt

Efsa also stressed the current actual risk to consumers from BPA was low, as their exposure to BPA was “well below the current TDI”.

Efsa has launched a public consultation on its draft assessment of BPA and the proposal to lower the tolerance limit, which closes on 13 March.

Food and drink is the major source of consumer exposure to BPA. It is used in the production of some plastic packaging, such as reusable water bottles and storage containers, and in the lining of some food and drink cans. The controversy around its potential effects on health has led a number of manufacturers to commit to reducing their use of BPA-containing materials, with some marketing their packaging specifically as BPA-free.

Today’s announcement on BPA TDIs comes after Efsa’s panel on food contact materials, enzymes, flavourings and processing aids launched a full re-evaluation of the risks associated with BPA in March 2012.

The panel’s chair, Iona Pratt, said assessing the risks around BPA had been a highly complex undertaking. “Efsa concludes there is an estimated safe level of exposure to BPA – known as the TDI – but has reduced this and set it on a temporary basis because of continuing uncertainties over the risks posed by the chemical.

“While we have analysed the best available evidence using state-of-science methods, we recognise that understanding in these areas is constantly advancing. Therefore our conclusions are as definitive as they can be in light of current data.”

The UK’s Food Standards Agency said once Efsa had published its final assessment of BPA, it would consider “whether action is necessary to protect consumers”.

‘Precautionary basis’

Barbara Gallani, director of regulation, science & health at FDF, said: “The conclusions by the European Food Safety Authority Panel that ‘the health concern for BPA is low at the current level of exposure’ are reinforced by the fact that current levels of exposure are well below the proposed temporary Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI).

“It is also clear from today’s EFSA’s document that the proposal to lower the TDI has been taken on a precautionary basis, pending the outcome of the US National Toxicology Programme, rather than because of changes to the existing evidence. FDF and the food industry welcome the opportunity to provide input into the consultation and to discuss feedback from the exercise with EFSA and other stakeholders in due course.”