The controversy surrounding the use of the chemical compound bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic food packaging continues unabated, according to social media analysis conducted by Commetric.

BPA is widely used: in plastic tin linings, baby bottles and drinks bottles, in some cosmetics and on cash register receipts. Detractors say it can leak into foodstuffs or become absorbed by the skin. As an endocrine-disruptor, they claim it can interfere with the body’s hormone system and it has been linked with health problems including higher risks of cancer, miscarriage, obesity, and developmental problems in the young.

By contrast, most Government regulators, including the US Food and Drug Administration and industry sources, maintain that the additive can be used safely in consumer products. But who do social media users trust?

To gauge the temperature of the current debate, Commetric monitored a year’s mainstream media comment and then analysed in detail a month’s tweets and blogs. The study identifies the most frequent commentators and implicated organisations, looks at the impact the issue is having on consumers and finds out whether it is toxic for those companies associated with it.

The US FDA is the dominant commentator … but not wholly trusted

Unsurprisingly, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was by far the most referenced organisation in the BPA debate. Mentions of BPA’s harmful effects were frequently contrasted with the FDA’s stated position that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods”. However, the organisation’s profile was not a universally  positive one.

Industry groups advocate for BPA

Support for BPA was often voiced by organisations with a vested interest in its use. John Rost of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance argued that BPA in food packaging poses no health risk for consumers. However, these industry voices appear to be doing little to influence social media opinion.

Interest groups condemn the substance and advocate for BPA-free companies

The Influencer Network map shows us that one of the most connected groups, contributing to a number of aspects of the debate, was the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC). There were also advocates for companies that had made the decision to avoid BPA. US organic food producer Eden Foods was highlighted as a brand that has become BPA free and introduced a plant-based BPA replacement.

Companies and brands can become collateral damage

Companies can find themselves in the spotlight following any association with BPA. Mentions of Coca-Cola in this context peaked after its shareholders voted 3-to-1 to continue to use BPA in Coke packaging. The mentions were factual but the volumes show the interest in the subject when a big brand makes a statement about its use, one way or another.

This can be used to positive effect. Wal-mart received a number of recommendations following its decision to stop carrying baby bottles made with the so-called “dangerous chemical Bisphenol A”.

Ongoing research about the health effects of BPA keeps the issue in the media spotlight

A debate that is unlikely to die

The study suggests that this is debate that will not go away any time soon.

It also supports the view that trust in established  institutions – including Government agencies and well-established brands – is vulnerable to long-running negative debates on social media, fuelled by research studies and commercial initiatives.

As with all such debates, the line between social and ‘mainstream’ or edited media is easily blurred with each fuelling the other. If they have not already done so, companies involved anywhere in the supply chain will need to think very carefully about their position and evaluate regularly how they are involved in the social media discussion.