Denmark's largest retailer isn't waiting for regulators to catch up with science, aims to phase out "the dirty dozen" linked to harmful health impacts
If you were looking to toss some popcorn in your microwave in Denmark this past summer, the popular movie snack wasn't easy to find.
That's because the country's largest retailer months earlier yanked microwave popcorn off its more than 1,200 stores because suppliers couldn't come up with a way to rid the packaging of fluorinated chemicals. The chemicals are not regulated in Denmark but are linked to certain cancers, hormone disruption, organ problems and lower birth weights, and found in the linings of popcorn bags.
Manufacturers use fluorinated compounds in popcorn bags so the paper in the bag doesn't quickly degrade after contacting the butter in the popcorn and, unlike previously used solutions such as wax, the chemicals can withstand microwave heat.
"There was just no solution in the world in popcorn," said Malene Teller Blume, department manager of chemistry and nonfood at Coop Denmark.
But then something happened: innovation. Just last week, Coop Denmark unveiled fluorinated-free microwave popcorn, made by Spanish snack company Liven.
The supplier came up with stronger paper for the bag, relied on the natural cellulose, which, after being boiled for a longer time, became impermeable to the fat, so the bag didn't need to be coated with the fluorinated chemicals.
Demand has been so high Coop can't keep the item stocked, Blume said.
Coop is the country's largest retailer.
The popcorn is illustrative of the company's attempt to get ahead of food regulators in protecting customers. Coop, an enormous member-owned Denmark retailer that enjoys about 40 percent of the country's retail market share, has named 12 groups of chemicals —dubbed "the dirty dozen"—and aims to phase out all of them before the end of 2017.
They launched the new chemical strategy about a month ago, said Louisa Raith Sørensen, a corporate social responsibility consultant at Coop. Here's the catch: "the dirty dozen" are completely legal. But Coop, working with scientists and other experts, concluded the evidence linking these chemicals to harmful impacts on people or the environment is enough to warrant a phase-out.
"Many people think everything that's still legal for use means it's safe. We do not agree," Sørensen said. "From when we see scientists are concerned, the legislation might take 5 to 10 years. So some of what was considered safe 10 years ago is now banned."
The dirty dozen includes bisphenol-A and other phenols, methyl isothiazolinone, fluorinated compounds, cosmetic compounds suspected of impacting the endocrine system, PVC and phthalates, chemicals in textiles, triclosan, cleaning products with chlorine and cationic compounds, pesticides and polluting washing detergents.
It also includes a phaseout on all substances currently listed as "very high concern" by the European Chemicals Agency, and certain fragrances and allergenic substances.
This is not a small company making a small change: Coop had an estimated revenue of six billion euros in 2014 and develops and sources products for a numbers of smaller retail chains, including SuperBrugsen, Irma, Kvickly, Fakta, Coop Närä, Coop Konsum, Coop Extra and Coop Mega.
"It's just smart business," said Andrea Larson, associate professor emeritus of business administration at the University of Virginia.
Larson said Coop's chemical program is emblematic of the strategic outlook of the more "savvy and sophisticated" companies, both globally and locally.
"From a very practicable standpoint, you want to be out in front of trends," said Larson, who specializes in entrepreneurship, innovation and sustainable business.
"If you're smart, you can gain strategic advantage," she added. "By positioning yourself strategically, staying ahead of trends instead of just reacting to them, you carve out new revenue opportunities as well as build brands."
From Coop's standpoint, by tackling chemicals not yet regulated, they will be better positioned than their competitors if the chemicals are banned at the national level. And, from a global perspective, other countries may have more stringent chemical regulations.
Coop also has received support from some leading voices in food safety, including Xenia Trier of the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark.
"We're very happy to see a business take on this responsibility, which is really what the law says it should do— ensure food contact materials do not pose a risk to human health," Trier said.
Trier said by pointing the finger at harmful, yet legal, chemicals, Coop is "showing consumers there's a gap" between what science says about some compounds and the lack of specific food regulations.
But "we can't always just remove products from shelves," Blume said, and removing all of the "dirty dozen" won't be easy. Some of the chemicals, BPA for instance, are widely used and ubiquitous in food packaging and might require a chemical substitution.
Trier said that Coop would have to avoid "incremental substitution," which means using similar chemicals to those banned. Such chemicals can often have similar health impacts.
Sørensen said Coop works closely with scientists and various environmental organizations to not only recognize potentially harmful compounds, but also identify solutions.
Larson said obstacles for companies looking to incorporate environmental sustainability are often internal, executives and managers who don't believe such changes can reduce costs and deliver competitive advantages.
With a cooperative, membership structure, the company doesn't answer to shareholders. Rather it's owned by about one quarter of the Danish population, Sørensen said.
Coop has a long history of putting members' safety first, Blume said. And so far suppliers have been mostly positive about the chemical phaseouts, Blume said. "They now have a deeper understanding why we do this and they can also see the commercial advantages," she said.
While the goal is to keep customers safe, such "commercial advantages" are a nice byproduct—even if it means they have to pull things right off the shelf.
"Even if we lost money on the popcorn, the positive publicity was worth it," Blume said. "Maybe we'll have more customers and more loyalty, when they're reading something about harmful chemicals and they have faith that we're taking care that."
Banner photo: David Jackmanson/flickr