Storing up trouble?
Jane Turner and Heather Webb wield the can opener on tinned fruit, vegetables, pulses, tomatoes and baked beans.
Canning food first started in the early 19th century and was a huge step forward for the food industry. It enabled foods to be stored for much longer, processed quickly, transported with minimal damage and so helped reduce wastage. Prior to this, foods were bottled to preserve them, but less efficiently than with today's bottling technology.
The cans are made of tin-plated steel, hence they often called tins rather than cans. The first tinned goods were made in 1813 for the British Army. Early cans were sealed with lead soldering, which led to lead poisoning. These days, a different problem ingredient is used in the canning process.
Every can has a toxic lining...
Today the main health issue surrounding canned food is the use of a substance called Bisphenol-A (BPA). It is used in the lining that acts as a barrier between the metal of the can and the food to stop the metal contaminating the food.
Unfortunately, BPA is a suspected endocrine disruptor which means that it can interfere with the body’s hormones. BPA mimics oestrogen in the body and researchers have found links between the chemical and numerous health problems including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and metabolic disorders.(3) In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found BPA in the urine of more than 90 percent of Americans tested, signalling widespread exposure to the chemical.(3)
A 2010 report from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised concerns about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behaviour, and prostate gland in foetuses, babies and young children.(4) In September 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA as a toxic substance. In the European Union and Canada, BPA use is banned in baby bottles.
Studies have shown that the chemical can leach into food but the European Food Safety Association and the UK Food Standards Agency say that the amount leached from tinned food is not harmful.(11) They say the levels are below the ‘Tolerable Daily Intake’ that they have set.
In 2010, the US Food and Drug Administration shifted its stance on BPA and said that exposure to the chemical is of “some concern” for infants and children. Previously, the agency’s stance was that the chemical posed no risk to humans, a stance consistent with that of the chemical industry.(12)
Independent studies draw vastly different conclusions from those studies funded by the chemical industry. According to one analysis:
• 92 percent of all reports funded independent of the chemical industry found adverse affects.
• 100 percent of the industry-funded scientific reports evaluating the risks of BPA exposure found no significant impact.(3)
BPA has been used as a lining since the 1960s which begs the question, how did we mange before BPA? The industry says “Can coatings are essential to maintaining the quality and integrity of canned food and beverages.”(6) But are they really? What is the health risk of food contaminated with tin, and is it worse than food contaminated with BPA?
The Food Standards Agency said that no long-term health effects were associated with consuming tin. But it can cause stomach upsets such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and bloating in some sensitive people at levels above 200 milligrams per kilogram, the maximum legal amount of tin that can be present in canned foods.(10)
With the furore around BPA gathering momentum, major food companies such as Nestlé and Heinz are now looking to alternative BPA-free linings. Meanwhile, a small, US organic company, Eden Foods, has been using BPA-free cans for its pulses since 1999.
We asked all the companies in this buyers’ guide what their policy was on the use of BPA in their tinned food. Suma, Mr Organic, General Mills, Heinz, La Bio Idea, Geo Organics, Princes, Tarantella and Essential Trading replied. Of these, Heinz and General Mills are making the most progress.
Heinz said that “for beans, pasta and many soups a protective coating is only applied to the can ends which would not leave any trace of BPA or would only be found at the limit of detection of a few parts per billion” (safe legal limit is 600 parts per billion). It has removed BPA from its baby food packaging in the UK.
In the USA, General Mills (Green Giant) sells organic tomatoes in BPA-free cans and is looking for alternative linings for other types of canned food. Because tomatoes are highly corrosive, the food industry has claimed that a suitable alternative to BPA linings has been difficult to find. But now one has, so there is nothing to stop other companies using this alternative.
The smaller companies said that they were at the mercy of the canning companies they subcontract to and didn’t have any clout to get them to alter their practices. The rest of the companies said that an alternative wasn’t available to them at present and any levels of BPA in their products were below the safe legal limits.
A number of smaller companies sell fruit and veg and baked beans in glass jars. The advantage is that the use of BPA is minimised – unfortunately it is still usually used to line the metal lid. However, according to Suma, the extra weight of a glass jar will obviously impact on carbon emissions during its distribution. There’s also a risk of food contamination if breakage occurs. The following companies sell vegetables in glass jars:
• Biona organic baked beans and veg
• Essential organic baked beans, carrots and sweetcorn
• Bionova organic sweetcorn and veg: would score 13.5
• De Rit organic baked beans and veg (same rating as sister company Whole Earth)
These all tend to be available from health food shops or websites.
• Reduce the number of tinned goods you eat
• Use fresh fruit and veg or dried pulses
• Make your own baked beans
• Frozen veg may also be an option but comes with its own energy-related impacts
The Food Standards Agency(10) says you can reduce the opportunity for any contamination from cans entering your food by:
• once a can is opened empty the contents into a bowl and store in the fridge
• don’t store food in opened cans or re-use them
• store cans in a cool dry place and use the oldest first
• throw away dented, rusting or bulging cans
For the tinned food that we are covering, the main categories to look out for on nutrition labels are sugar and salt levels.
Where present, nutrition labels usually include information on energy (calories), protein, carbohydrate and fat. They may provide additional information on saturated fat, sugars, sodium, salt and fibre. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food. Additional nutrition information such as the traffic light system or Guideline Daily Amounts are optional.
High salt consumption is linked to a range of health problems including stroke and heart disease whilst high sugar causes obesity and tooth decay.(2)
For tinned fruit, to avoid high sugars, you can look for the varieties that are not in sugar syrup. For tinned vegetables, choose the varieties that are not in salted water and don’t have sugar added. For baked beans, see the salt and sugar comparison in the buyers' guide.
Guideline Daily Amounts
The food industry promotes the ‘Guideline Daily Amount’ (GDA) system which can usually be found on the back or side of packaging. But you usually have to do a mathematical calculation to work out how much of your GDA you will be having if you eat a portion of that product.
The GDA values given are usually based on the average requirements of an adult woman which is no good if you are trying to look for safe levels for kids. Where a value is given for kids (which is not often) an average value for girls and boys aged 5-10 is given which is no good for the under fives.
The traffic light system of labelling was promoted by the government’s Food Standards Agency and is supported by us and health organisations such as the British Medical Association, food campaigners and some retailers (Co-op, M&S, ASDA, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s) as being the most helpful to consumers and made comparisons between different products quick and easy.
It gives percentages of GDA for each nutrient and shows consumers at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.
Country of origin
Currently within the UK there are currently no legal requirements for tinned products to label country of origin. Tinned produce may state that they are the ‘produce of Italy’ for example, yet under guidelines produced by the Food Standards Agency this country may only refer to the place in which the produce last underwent a treatment or process resulting in a substantial change.
You may therefore be buying produce from countries where working conditions and pay are far from ideal.
Most of the top producing countries for the most common pulses sold in the UK appear on our oppressive regimes list and include Burma, India, China, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Nigeria.
There is little research about workers’ rights issues in the production of pulses. However given our extensive research into oppressive regimes, it is a fair assumption that working conditions for people involved in the production of pulses may not be ideal. Companies can benefit financially from the very conditions which contribute to oppression, such as harsh labour conditions, lax environmental regulations and an economic environment conducive to corruption and tax avoidance.
Even produce grown in Europe does not guarantee the protection of workers’ rights. In our Pasta Sauce buyers’ guide, we saw that migrant workers on Italian tomato farms were dubbed ‘Europe’s tomato slaves’ whilst migrant tomato workers in Florida were also labelled as slaves.
What you can do
Organic standards include some criteria to protect workers’ rights. The Soil Association standard, for example, requires producers to comply with the core standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). There are lots of organic brands to choose from.
Best of all is to buy Fairtrade where possible. Geo Organic sell Fairtrade baked beans whilst Suma sell Fairtrade pulses.
Tin – a conflict mineral
Just under one third of the world’s total tin production goes into the manufacture of tinplate, for which food packaging is by far the largest of many diverse applications.(5)
During the Middle Ages, and again in the early 19th century, Cornwall was the major tin producer. These days, China is the largest producer of tin, with 44% of the world’s share, followed by Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and then the Congo.(8)
According to the US Enough Project which campaigns against ‘conflict minerals’, The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to about one-third of the world’s cassiterite (the primary ore from which tin is extracted), and is a major source of wealth for armed groups.(9) In eastern Congo today, these mineral resources are financing multiple armed groups, many of whom use mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations, thereby securing control of mines, trading routes, and other strategic areas.
There are four main conflict minerals being mined in the Congo: cassiterite, coltan (the ore for a rare metal called tantalum which is used in mobile phones), wolframite (tungsten ore), and gold. The illicit trade provides rebel groups and units of the national army with tens of millions of dollars a year that they use to buy guns and shore up their rival campaigns.
The Enough Project says that the majority of these minerals eventually wind up in electronic devices and so it is campaigning to get electronic companies to remove conflict minerals from their supply chain. More info from www.raisehopeforcongo.org
No-one has so far, to our knowledge, focussed attention on the tinned goods industry, however in future we may be requesting conflict minerals policy information from the companies we cover in our buyers’ guides.
Tinned food – supermarket own brands
The supermarket own brands are top sellers for most of the tinned food that we have covered in this report, apart from baked beans, which is dominated by Heinz.
For a rating of the supermarkets, see our shopping guide.
Our Best Buy recommendations then were the Co-op and Marks & Spencer. Co-op sells own branded tinned fruit, vegetables, baked beans and pulses, while Marks and Spencer sells tinned vegetables, baked beans and pulses.
Windmill began life in 1978 as a wholefood retail outlet on the Fulham Road, London. In 1981 a vegetarian and organic restaurant was added and the food was so popular that its founders decided to offer products to other retailers. The Biona brand name refers to its organic roots; ‘Bio’ meaning organic throughout much of Europe and ‘Na’ taken from the word nature.
All its products are organic, GM free, suitable for vegetarians (many are vegan), and with no artificial additives. It also produces the Biofair Fairtrade range.
Venture Foods is a small independent company based in Shropshire. All its products are vegetarian and the vast majority are organic. It is the only company to offer Fairtrade baked beans which come from a group of farmers in Inner Mongolia.
Suma is a brand of Triangle Wholefoods, a workers’ co-op based in Yorkshire and the UK’s biggest wholefoods distributor.
Essential Trading is a workers’ co-operative. Its tinned tomatoes are from an Italian co-op, its fruit from a Sri Lankan project that supports the post-Tsunami economy and the fruit is produced, prepared and canned in Sri Lanka, ensuring that all profit remains at source. Its fruit and veg in glass jars are produced in a factory which receives all its energy from sustainable sources.
Ebro Foods is one of Spain’s leading food companies. Its two key businesses are rice and pasta, where it holds the no.1 and no.2 spots in the world, respectively.14 The company owns rice-growing subsidiaries in Egypt and Thailand.
Rakusen’s was founded in 1890 by Lloyd Rakusen and produces kosher products including matzos.
US company Heinz has many more than 57 varieties but its flagship product is ketchup accounting for nearly half of its sales last year. In 2008, HJ Heinz Company violated the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in a nutritional guide distributed to Chinese hospitals. Heinz incorrectly claimed that breastmilk did not meet the nutritional needs of babies aged four months.(15)
Fresh Del Monte Produce is one of the world’s biggest pineapple and banana producers with bananas making up nearly half of its sales. The company grows and sources its produce primarily in Central and South America, Africa, and the Philippines. In 2010, 45% of the fresh produce it sold was grown on company-controlled (owned or leased) farms. It is headquartered in the Cayman Islands, a well known tax haven.
Del Monte was one of the companies (including Dole, see below) accused in May 2007 by a jailed Colombian war lord of having made payments to Colombian paramilitaries – something Del Monte immediately denied. Human rights activists claimed that the paramilitaries acted as union busters, killing union leaders.(16)
The company also owns poultry farms, a slaughterhouse and meat processing plants in Jordan.
Fresh Del Monte is 35% owned by the Jordanian Palestinian Abu-Ghazaleh family.
US company Dole is another top grower of bananas and pineapples and rival to Fresh Del Monte. This year it settled lawsuits filed by farm workers claiming injuries from the agricultural chemical DBCP. It was alleged that Dole ignored evidence that the pesticide caused sterility.(17) Other banana workers in Latin America have also filed damage claims.
Chairman David Murdock owns about 59% of the company.(14)
Princes (Mitsubsihi) bought the canned grocery operations of Premier Foods in August 2011 but Premier continues to own the Branston and Batchelors brands, hence the 50/50 ownership for these two brands. Profiles of both Premier and Mitsubishi featured in our Pasta buyers’ guide.
John West is owned by one of Thailand’s largest producers of frozen and canned seafood, Thai Union Frozen Products. Thai Union also operates its own can production facilities and fishing vessels, and has holdings in animal-feed operations, and commercial printing.
John West owns 20% of La Doria.
Natco Foods is part of The Choithram Group. In 1944 Mr Thakurdas Choithram Pagarani opened his first small grocery store in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The name ‘Natco’ derives from ‘National Confectionery Company’, a legacy of the early days specialising in the manufacture of sweets and biscuits for the people of Sierra Leone and neighbouring West African countries. In the early 1960s, T Choithram and Sons opened operations in the UK, initially to supply authentic Indian foods to the growing UK Asian population.
1 FSA Survey of baked beans and canned pasta, 8 July 2004
2 NHS Choices website, November 2011
3 Seeking Safer Packaging, Green Century Capital Management and As You Sow – 2009 4 Food and Drug Administration - Update on Bisphenol A for Use in Food Contact Applications: January 2010
5 Tin in canned food: a review and understanding of occurrence and effect; Steve Blunden, Tony Wallace – July 2003
6 Bisphenol A Website – www.bisphenol-a.org, November 2011
8 U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2011
9 Enough Project - www.enoughproject.org
10 Food Standards Agency Archive - http://tna.europarchive.org/20100929190231/http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthissues/factsbehindissues/tins/
11 European Food Safety Association - www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/cef100930.htm
12 Food and Drug Administration website - www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm064437.htm
13 Food Standards Agency Eatwell 2010
14 Hoovers, December 2011
15 Multinational Monitor July/August 2008
16 Banana Trade News Bulletin June 2007
17 Reuters, October 2011.