When Wal-Mart “went green” a while back, motivated to improve both its bottom line and its reputation, it wielded enormous power over manufacturers and suppliers to do likewise. As the New York Times put it:

By virtue of its herculean size, Wal-Mart eventually dragged much of corporate America along with it, leading mighty suppliers like General Electric and Procter & Gamble to transform their own business practices.

No matter how much we love to dis the big fellas of corporate America, the fact is, when they do something good, the impact can be sweeping. That’s why it’s so encouraging to learn that Cincinnati-based Kroger announced last week that “in addition to making sure there is no BPA in the baby products it sells, the store is ridding the chemical from its store brand canned foods and purchasing BPA-free paper for its store receipts.”

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  • Guinea Pig by Ren at Morguefile.comWhy is the big grocer saying no to BPA? While the company isn’t ready to cop to the evidence that “small amounts” of BPA from canned food linings and other products is a health risk, Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey told the Columbus Dispatch the move was in response to customer feedback and emerging concerns regarding the safety of BPA. No one wants to be a guinea pig!

    We’ve written about BPA in consumer products many times before. If you’ve been following, you know that customer concerns are not unfounded. Here’s the Columbus Dispatch (emphasis mine):

    But some studies have shown that BPA can leach into food from the cans. In fact, 93 percent of consumers have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    A study this month found that exposure to the chemical during fetal growth affects the development of reproductive systems and, in babies, can lead to neurological problems.

    Other studies have linked BPA exposure to breast and prostate cancer, infertility, obesity, early puberty in girls and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

    As Change.org reports, just last week, a new study linked in-utero BPA exposure with a higher incidence of childhood asthma.

    I wrote just last week about how BPA-free products aren’t necessarily as baby-safe as we’d like to think—in large part because BPA is often replaced by some other chemical that may come with similar or new health risks. And Kroger’s move will only affect its own in-house brands (Kroger, Value Brand, Private Selection, Comforts, Mirra, Active Lifestyle and Fresh Selections). However, some analysts say that this move puts pressure on other grocers and buyers to follow suit.

    Indeed, Change.org asks, “Will Safeway do the same?” Here’s how they characterize what may be shaping up as a real trend:

    Companies are hopping on the BPA ban bandwagon, too: H.J. Heinz, ConAgra, Hain Celestial, and General Mills have all put plans in place to phase BPA out of their canned products.   Even fast food restaurants like Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken are starting to drop BPA from their receipts.

    Kroger and Whole Foods are the only national supermarket chains to ditch BPA at this point, but hopefully the duo will be joined by other grocers soon.

    Government bans are more definitive than voluntary actions by private interests (and some governments are moving forward on this…at least 20 states have banned or are considering banning BPA in certain instances. Maine has banned the chemical in reusable food and beverage containers, and Oregon is considering a ban on BPA in baby bottles and training, or “sippy,” cups. Connecticut is considering a ban on the chemical in receipt paper.)

    But to me the lesson we can take from the wave of voluntary actions by grocers and suppliers is that consumers do care what’s in our food and other products, and that pressure from all of the little buyers—you and me—can nudge the big buyers to do the right thing. It’s good eco-nomics.

    Image courtesy of Ren at Morguefile.com.