The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is quietly starting to test certain foods for residues of a weed killing chemical linked to cancer, has found the residues in a variety of oat products, including plain and flavored oat cereals for babies.
Data compiled by an FDA chemist and presented to other chemists at a meeting in Florida showed residues of the pesticide known as glyphosate in several types of infant oat cereal, including banana strawberry- and banana-flavored varieties. Glyphosate was also detected in "cinnamon spice" instant oatmeal; "maple brown sugar" instant oatmeal and "peach and cream" instant oatmeal products, as well as others. In the sample results shared, the levels ranged from nothing detected in several different organic oat products to 1.67 parts per million, according to the presentation.
Glyphosate, which is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide, is the most widely used weed killer in the world, and concerns about glyphosate residues in food spiked after the World Health Organization in 2015 said a team of international cancer experts determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Other scientists have raised concerns about how heavy use of glyphosate is impacting human health and the environment.
The EPA maintains that the chemical is "not likely" to cause cancer, and has established tolerance levels for glyphosate residues in oats and many other foods. The levels found by the FDA in oats fall within those allowed tolerances, which for oats is set by the EPA at 30 ppm. The United States typically allows far more glyphosate residue in food than other countries allow. In the European Union, the tolerance for glyphosate in oats is 20 ppm.
Monsanto, which derives close to a third of its $15 billion in annual revenues from glyphosate-based products, has helped guide the EPA in setting tolerance levels for glyphosate in food, and in 2013 requested and received higher tolerances for many foods. The company has developed genetically engineered crops designed to be sprayed directly with glyphosate. Corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets are all genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed with glyphosate.
Oats are not genetically engineered. But Monsanto has encouraged farmers to spray oats and other non-genetically modified crops with its glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides shortly before harvest. The practice can help dry down and even out the maturity of the crop. "A preharvest weed control application is an excellent management strategy to not only control perennial weeds, but to facilitate harvest management and get a head start on next year's crop," according to a Monsanto "pre-harvest staging guide."
In Canada, which is among the world's largest oat producers and is a major supplier of oats to the United States, the Monsanto marketing materials tout the benefits of glyphosate on oat fields: "Pre-harvest application of Roundup WeatherMAX and Roundup Transorb HC are registered for application on all oat varieties - including milling oats destined for human consumption." Glyphosate is also used by U.S. oat farmers. The EPA estimates that about 100,000 pounds of glyphosate are used annually in production of U.S. oats.
Glyphosate is also used on wheat shortly before harvest in this way, as well as on other crops. A division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture known as the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has been testing wheat for glyphosate residues for years for export purposes and have detected the residues in more than 40 percent of hundreds of wheat samples examined in fiscal 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Even though the FDA annually examines foods for residues of many other types of pesticides, it has skipped testing for glyphosate residues for decades. It was only in February of this year that the agency said it would start some glyphosate residue analysis. That came after many independent researchers started conducting their own testing and found glyphosate in an array of food products, including flour, cereal, and oatmeal.
Monsanto and U.S. regulators have said glyphosate levels in food are too low to translate to any health problems in humans. But critics say such assurances are meaningless unless the government actually routinely measures those levels as it does with other pesticides.
And some do not believe any level of glyphosate is safe in food. Earlier this year, Taiwan recalled more than 130,000 pounds of oat supplies after detecting glyphosate residues. And San Francisco resident Danielle Cooper filed a lawsuit in May 2016 seeking class action status against the Quaker Oats Co. after glyphosate residues were found in that company's oat products, which are used by millions of consumers as cereal and for baking cookies and other treats. Cooper said she expected the oat products, which have been labeled as "100% Natural," to be pesticide free.
"Glyphosate is a dangerous substance, the presence and dangers of which should be disclosed," the lawsuit states.
Quaker Oats has said any trace amounts of glyphosate found in its products are safe, and it stands by the quality of its products.
HERBICIDE IN HONEY
In addition to oats, the FDA also earlier this year tested samples of U.S. honey for glyphosate residues and found all of the samples contained glyphosate residues, including some with residue levels double the limit allowed in the European Union, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The EPA has not set a tolerance level for glyphosate in honey, so any amount is problematic legally.
Despite internal discussions about a need to pursue action after the honey findings in January, the FDA did not notify the honey companies involved that their products were found to be contaminated with glyphosate residues, nor did it notify the public.
The FDA has also tested corn, soy, eggs and milk in recent months, and has not found any levels that exceed legal tolerance, though analysis is ongoing.
"These preliminary results showed no pesticide residue violations for glyphosate in all four commodities tested. However, the special assignment is ongoing and all results must go through the FDA's quality control process to be verified," said FDA spokeswoman Megan McSeveney. The tests on honey were not considered part of the official special assignment, said McSeveney.
"Dr. Narong Chamkasem, an FDA research chemist based in Atlanta, tested 19 samples of honey as part of a research project that he individually conducted," she said.
The glyphosate residue testing by FDA may be headed for a slow-down. Sources say there it talk of closing the FDA's Atlanta laboratory that has done glyphosate residue tests. The work would then reportedly be shifted to other facilities around the country.
The revelations about glyphosate residues in certain foods come as both European and U.S. regulators are evaluating glyphosate impacts for risks to humans and the environment. The EPA is holding four days of meetings in mid-October with an advisory panel to discuss cancer research pertaining to glyphosate, and debate is ongoing over whether or not the team of international scientists who last year declared it a probable human carcinogen were right nor not.
Aaron Blair, the chairman of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) working group that classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans, said that the science on glyphosate is still evolving. He said that it is common for it to take years, sometimes decades, for industry and regulators to accept certain research findings and for scientists to reach consensus. He likened glyphosate to formaldehyde, which many years ago was also classified by IARC as "probably carcinogenic" to humans before it later was accepted to be carcinogenic.
"There is not a single example of IARC being wrong, showing something is a probable carcinogen and then later it is proven not to be," Blair said.