FDA Suspends Testing for Glyphosate Residues in Food

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam

Government testing for residues of an herbicide that has been linked to cancer has been put on hold, slowing the Food and Drug Administration’s first-ever endeavor to get a handle on just how much of the controversial chemical is making its way into U.S. foods.

The FDA, the nation’s chief food safety regulator, launched what it calls a “special assignment” earlier this year to analyze certain foods for residues of the weed killer called glyphosate after the agency was criticized  by the U.S. Government Accountability Office for failing to include glyphosate in annual testing programs that look for many less-used pesticides. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world, and is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicide line.

Glyphosate is under particular scrutiny now after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts last year declared the chemical a probable human carcinogen. Several private groups and nonprofits have been doing their own testing, and have been finding glyphosate residues in varying levels in a range of foods, raising consumer concerns about the pesticide’s presence in the American diet.

The FDA’s residue testing for glyphosate was combined with a broader herbicides analysis program the FDA set in motion in February of this year. But the glyphosate testing has been particularly challenging for the FDA. The agency was finally forced to put the glyphosate residue testing part of the work plan on hold amid confusion, disagreement and difficulties with establishing a standard methodology to use across the agency’s multiple U.S. laboratories, according to FDA sources. Equipment issues have also been a problem, with some labs citing a need for more sensitive instruments, sources within FDA said.

FDA spokeswoman Megan McSeveney confirmed the testing suspension and said the agency is not sure when it will resume.

“As testing for glyphosate will expand to several locations, we are currently working to ensure that the methods are validated for use in these labs. As soon as the validation is completed, testing for glyphosate will resume,” she said. “We cannot speculate on timing at this point.”

Alongside the testing for glyphosate, the FDA laboratories have also been analyzing foods for 2,4-D and other “acid herbicides,” documents obtained from the FDA show. The category of acid herbicides includes five of the top 10 active ingredients used in homes and gardens. Usage of 2,4-D is expected to triple in the coming year, according to the FDA.

The FDA work detail calls for the examination of roughly 1,340 food samples, 82 percent of which are to be domestic and 18 percent imported. The foods are to be collected from warehouse and retail stores only, and are to include a variety of cereal grains, vegetables and non-flavored, whole milk and eggs. Documents obtained from the agency through Freedom of Information requests show the agency has been testing corn and soybeanswheat, barley, sugar beets, rice, and even samples of yellow popcorn and “organic white popcorn.” 

McSeveney said glyphosate residues were only being analyzed in soy, corn, milk and eggs and the popcorn samples, while the other foods are being tested for residues of other herbicides.

Earlier this year, one of the agency’s senior chemists also analyzed glyphosate residues in honey and oatmeal and reported his results to the agency. Some honey samples contained residue levels well over the limit allowed in the European Union. The United States has no legal tolerance for glyphosate in honey, though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said recently it may set one because of the FDA findings. The results for honey and oatmeal are not considered to be part of the official assignment, however, according to McSeveney.

With the testing on hold, it is not clear when the agency might have final results on the glyphosate residue analysis. McSeveney said preliminary results showed no violations of legal tolerance levels allowed for glyphosate in the foods tested. She did not provide details on what, if any, levels of residue were found. Tolerance levels are set by the EPA for a variety of pesticides expected to be found in foods. When residue levels are detected above the tolerance levels, enforcement action can be taken against the food producer.

Monsanto said earlier this year that no data has ever indicated residue levels of more than a fraction of allowable levels, and it is confident FDA testing will reaffirm the safety of its herbicide.

Though FDA annually tests domestic and imported foods for residues of other pesticides, it never tested for glyphosate before. It has not routinely tested for 2,4-D either, a fact also criticized by the GAO. The FDA testing for 2,4-D residues comes as the use of 2,4-D with food crops is expected to start rising due to the commercialization of new formulated herbicide products that combine glyphosate and 2,4-D. Safety questions have been raised about the combination. But the EPA gave a green light on Nov. 1 to a Dow AgroSciences’ herbicide combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D. The new products are intended to counter widespread weed resistance to glyphosate, and be used with new types of genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops.

The agrichemical industry asserts that residues of glyphosate, 2,4-D and the array of other chemicals used in modern-day agriculture do not pose a danger to human health, but the lack of testing to determine actual residue levels of some of the most-used chemicals, like glyphosate and 2,4-D, has been troubling to many consumer groups.

Getting solid data on glyphosate’s presence in the American food supply is more important than ever now as the EPA finalizes a risk assessment for glyphosate and tries to determine if any limits should be put on future use of the herbicide. The FDA work covers only a few foods, but is a long-needed, good first step. Consumers can only hope the testing resumes soon.

The article was first published in the Huffington Post

More Bad News for Honey as U.S. Seeks to Get Handle on Glyphosate Residues in Foods

Print Email Share Tweet

Testing for residues of an herbicide developed by Monsanto Co. that has been linked to cancer has turned up high levels in honey from the key farm state of Iowa, adding to concerns about herbicide contamination that have triggered at least two lawsuits against honey industry players and prompted scrutiny by regulators.

The Food and Drug Administration began glyphosate residue testing in a small number of foods earlier this year after the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. The “special assignment,” as the FDA refers to the testing project, is the first time the FDA has ever looked for glyphosate residues in food, though it annually tests foods for numerous other pesticides.

Research by FDA chemist Narong Chamkasem and John Vargo, a chemist at the University of Iowa, shows that residues of glyphosate – the chief ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup herbicide – have been detected at 653 parts per billion, more than 10 times the limit of 50 ppb allowed in the European Union. Other samples tested detected glyphosate residues in honey samples at levels from the low 20s ppb to over 123 parts per billion ppb. Some samples had none or only trace amounts below levels of quantification. Previous reports had disclosed glyphosate residues in honey detected as high as 107 ppb. The collaborative work was part of an effort within FDA to establish and validate testing methodology for glyphosate residues.

“According to recent reports, there has been a dramatic increase in the usage of these herbicides, which are of risk to both human health and the environment,” Chamkasem and Vargo stated in their laboratory bulletin.

Because there is no legal tolerance level for glyphosate in honey in the United States, any amount could technically be considered a violation, according to statements made in FDA internal emails, obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The Environmental Protection Agency may soon move to set a tolerance, however. The agency has set tolerance levels for glyphosate residues in many foods the EPA expects might contain residues of the weed killer. When residue levels are detected above the tolerance levels, enforcement action can be taken against the food producer.

“EPA is evaluating the necessity of establishing tolerances for inadvertent residues of pesticides in honey,” the agency said in a statement. The EPA also said there was no reason for consumers to be concerned about the residue in honey.  “EPA has examined the glyphosate residue levels found in honey and has determined that glyphosate residues at those levels do not raise a concern for consumers,” the agency said.

Despite the reassurances, at least two lawsuits have been filed over the issue. The Organic Consumers Association and the Beyond Pesticides nonprofit group filed suit Nov. 1 against the Sioux Honey Association Cooperative, a large Iowa-based group of bee keepers who produce the nationally known brand Sue Bee Honey. Sue Bee bills itself as “America’s Honey,” but the lawsuit alleges that the labeling and advertising of Sue Bee Products as “Pure,” “100% Pure,” “Natural,” and “All-natural” is “false, misleading, and deceptive.” Some of the glyphosate residues detected in the FDA tests were found in the Sue Bee brand, according to the FDA documents obtained through FOIA requests

The claims are similar to another lawsuit, which seeks class action status, that was filed against Sioux Honey Association in late September in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Quaker Oats was sued earlier this year on a similar claim regarding glyphosate residues. The FDA has also found glyphosate residues in oatmeal, including several types of infant oat cereal.

Considering corn is the key crop grown in Iowa, and most of the U.S. corn crop is genetically modified to tolerate being sprayed directly with glyphosate, it is not necessarily surprising that glyphosate residues are showing up in honey in Iowa and other farm states. Honey bees naturally migrate from field to field and plant to plant, so can become contaminated by the pesticide easily and then transfer pesticide residues to their honey, according to bee industry leaders.

“It’s a chemical intrusion, a chemical trespass into our product,” said Darren Cox, president of the American Honey Producers Association. “We have really no way of controlling it. I don’t see an area for us to put our bees. We can’t put them in the middle of the desert. They need to be able to forage in ag areas. There are no ag areas free of this product.”

Sioux Honey Association President David Allibone said no one from the FDA has communicated with his group about the chemical residues found in honey, and he said he could not discuss the issue further because of the litigation.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday acknowledges the difficulties beekeepers face. They “are often the victims of, and have little recourse against, contamination of their hives caused by pesticide applications in the fields where bees forage,” the lawsuit states.

The glyphosate residues showing up in food are surprising and worrisome, according to dietitian Mitzi Dulan, a nationally known nutrition and wellness expert.

“I think more testing should be done so that we are armed with the knowledge and then we can decide what we want to put into our bodies,” Dulan said. “I do believe in minimizing pesticide exposures whenever possible.”

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, said regulators need to do more to address the issue.

“Until U.S. regulatory agencies prohibit Monsanto and other manufacturers of glyphosate from selling pesticides that end up in the food supply, we need to protect consumers by demanding truth and transparency in labeling,” Feldman said.

(Article first appeared in The Huffington Post)

FDA Finds Monsanto’s Weed Killer In U.S. Honey

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam

The Food and Drug Administration, under public pressure to start testing samples of U.S. food for the presence of a pesticide that has been linked to cancer, has some early findings that are not so sweet.

In examining honey samples from various locations in the United States, the FDA has found fresh evidence that residues of the weed killer called glyphosate can be pervasive – found even in a food that is not produced with the use of glyphosate. All of the samples the FDA tested in a recent examination contained glyphosate residues, and some of the honey showed residue levels double the limit allowed in the European Union, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. There is no legal tolerance level for glyphosate in honey in the United States.

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 its cancer experts determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Other international scientists have raised concerns about how heavy use of glyphosate is impacting human health and the environment.

Records obtained from the FDA, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, detail a range of revelations about the federal government’s efforts to get a handle on these rising concerns. In addition to honey, the records show government residue experts discussing glyphosate found in soybean and wheat samples, “glyphosate controversies,” and the belief that there could be “a lot of violation for glyphosate” residues in U.S. crops.

Even though the FDA annually examines foods for residues of many 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 residues 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. The government and Monsanto have maintained that any glyphosate residues in food would be minimal enough to be safe. But critics say without robust testing, glyphosate levels in food are not known. And they say that even trace amounts may be harmful because they are likely consumed so regularly in many foods.

The residue issues are coming into the spotlight at the same time that the EPA is completing a risk assessment to determine if use of this top-selling herbicide should be limited. The agency has scheduled public meetings on the matter Oct. 18-21 in Washington. The EPA’s risk assessment report was initially due out in 2015, but still has not been finalized. The agency now says it will be completed in “spring 2017.”

In the records released by the FDA, one internal email describes trouble locating honey that doesn’t contain glyphosate: “It is difficult to find blank honey that does not contain residue. I collect about 10 samples of honey in the market and they all contain glyphosate,” states an FDA researcher. Even “organic mountain honey” contained low concentrations of glyphosate, the FDA documents show.

According to the FDA records, samples tested by FDA chemist Narong Chamkasem showed residue levels at 107 ppb in samples the FDA associated with Louisiana-based Carmichael’s Honey; 22 ppb in honey the FDA linked to Leighton’s Orange Blossom Honey in Florida and residues at 41 ppb in samples the FDA associated with Iowa-based Sue Bee Honey, which is marketed by a cooperative of American beekeepers as “pure, all-natural” and “America’s Honey.” Customers “can be assured that Sue Bee Honey is 100% pure, 100% all-natural and 100% American,” the Sioux Honey Association states.

In a Jan. 8, 2016 email Chamkasem pointed out to fellow FDA scientists that the EU tolerance level is 50 ppb and there is no amount of glyphosate allowed at all in honey in the United States. But Chris Sack, an FDA chemist who oversees the agency’s pesticide residue testing, responded by reassuring Chamkasem and the others that the glyphosate residues discovered are only “technically a violation.”

“The bee farmers are not breaking any laws; rather glyphosate is being introduced by the bees,” Sack wrote in response. “While the presence of glyphosate in honey is technically a violation, it is not a safety issue.”

Sack said the EPA had been “made aware of the problem” and was expected to set tolerance levels for honey. Once tolerance levels are set by EPA – if they are set high enough – the residues would no longer be a violation. When contacted this week, the EPA said there are currently no pending requests to set tolerance levels for glyphosate in honey. But, the agency also said: “there is no dietary risk concern from exposure to glyphosate residues in honey at this time.”

Sioux Honey Vice President Bill Huser said glyphosate is commonly used on farm fields frequented by bees, and the pesticide travels back with the bees to the hives where the honey is produced.

“The industry doesn’t have any control over environmental impacts like this,” Huser said. Most of Sue Bee’s honey comes from bees located near clover and alfalfa in the upper Midwest, he said. Beekeepers located in the South would have honeybees close to cotton and soybean fields. Alfalfa, soybeans and cotton are all genetically engineered to be sprayed directly with glyphosate.

The FDA results are not the first to find glyphosate in honey. Sampling done in early 2015 by the scientific research company Abraxis found glyphosate residues in 41 of 69 honey samples with glyphosate levels between 17 and 163 ppb, with the mean average being 64 ppb.

Bee keepers say they are innocent victims who see their honey products contaminated simply because they might be located within a few miles of farms where glyphosate is used.

“I don’t understand how I’m supposed to control the level of glyphosate in my honey when I’m not the one using Roundup,” one honey company operator said. “It’s all around me. It’s unfair.”

The FDA did not respond to a question about the extent of its communications with Monsanto regarding residue testing, but the records released show that Monsanto has had at least some interaction with the FDA on this issue. In April of this year, Monsanto’s international regulatory affairs manager Amelia Jackson-Gheissari emailed FDA asking to set up a time to talk about “enforcement of residue levels in the USA, particularly glyphosate.”

The FDA routinely looks for residues of a number of commonly used pesticides but not glyphosate. The look for glyphosate this year is considered a “special assignment” and came after the agency was criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014 for failing to test for glyphosate.

The FDA has not released formal results of its testing plans or the findings, but Sack made a presentation in June to the California Specialty Crops Council that said the agency was analyzing 300 samples of corn; 300 samples of soy; and 120 samples each of milk and eggs. He described some partial results achieved through April that showed glyphosate levels found in 52 samples of corn and 44 samples of soybeans but not above legally allowed levels. The presentation did not mention honey. The presentation also stated that glyphosate testing at the FDA will be expanded to “routine screening.”

The USDA also will start testing for glyphosate, but not until next year, according to information the agency gave to the nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides in a meeting in Washington in January. Documents obtained through FOIA show a plan to test in syrups and oils in 2017.

Soybeans and Wheat

Like the FDA, the USDA has dragged its feet on testing. Only one time, in 2011, has the USDA tested for glyphosate residues despite the fact that the agency does widespread testing for residues of other less-used pesticides. In what the USDA called a “special project” the agency tested 300 soybean samples for glyphosate and found more than 90 percent – 271 of the samples – carried the weed killer residues. The agency said then that further testing for glyphosate was “not a high priority” because glyphosate is considered so safe. It also said that while residues levels in some samples came close to the very high levels of glyphosate “tolerance” established by EPA, they did not exceed those levels.

Both the USDA and the FDA have long said it is too expensive and is unnecessary to test for glyphosate residues. Yet the division within the USDA known as the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has been testing wheat for glyphosate residues for years because many foreign buyers have strong concerns about glyphosate residues. GIPSA’s testing is part of an “export cargo sampling program,” documents obtained from GIPSA show. Those tests showed glyphosate residues detected in more than 40 percent of hundreds of wheat samples examined in fiscal 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. The levels vary, the data shows. GIPSA has also been helping FDA access soybeans to test. In a May 2015 email, GIPSA chemist Gary Hinshaw told an FDA food safety official that “it isn’t difficult to find soybeans containing glyphosate.” In a December 7, 2015 email from FDA chemist Terry Councell to Lauren Robin, also a chemist and an FDA consumer safety officer, Councell said that glyphosate was present even in processed commodities, though “way below tolerance.”

The fact that the government is aware of glyphosate residues in food, but has dragged its feet on testing for so long, frustrates many who are concerned about the pesticide.

“There is no sense of urgency around these exposures that we live with day in and day out,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.

(First appeared in The Huffington Post)

Broken FOIA Far from Healing as U.S. Agencies Cheat Public

Print Email Share Tweet

In America, one of the fundamental principles of our democracy is that our government works for us. We are supposed to have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as President Abraham Lincoln famously said. To help ensure that principle is upheld we recognize that public access to information about government actions is critical to sustaining individual and collective freedoms.

But this year, as we notch the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), mounting evidence shows that many of our federal agencies are actually working to stifle that freedom by wrongfully withholding information from the public. In June, President Obama signed a bill presumably aimed at strengthening FOIA. But while the law offers a range of new procedural improvements, the provisions do little to actually prevent the continuation of common abuses and excuses we see from agencies reluctant to turn over information about their activities.

Attempts to evade the FOIA law have become so routine that the U.S. Government Accountability Office is convening a team now to begin a broad audit of FOIA compliance at federal agencies. The GAO review will get underway this month, according to the GAO.

The investigation comes in response to a directive issued by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, congressional bodies that have oversight of FOIA operations. And it comes after a damning report from the House committee that found the culture of the executive branch of the federal government “encourages an unlawful presumption in favor of secrecy when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.” Agencies are supposed to act upon and respond to FOIA requesters within 20 working days, but anyone who regularly makes FOIA requests knows that it will likely be months, if not years, before any records are produced. If and when records are turned over, they often are heavily redacted, making them essentially useless. The House committee on oversight also found that political pressures often are at play, with documents deemed problematic or embarrassing withheld from release.

“Secrecy fosters distrust,” the committee report noted.

In their letter to the GAO, congressional committee leaders cited an Associated Press analysis that found people who asked for records received censored files or none at all in a record 77 percent of requests last year. Overall, the Obama administration censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them in a record 596,095 cases.

Filing a FOIA these days is a little like stepping through the looking glass into an alternative reality where order and logic are elusive. Pro Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, recently offered a litany of examples of governmental side-stepping of the law.

And I remain mired in my own frustrating FOIA odyssey. In January, I requested certain records from the Food and Drug Administration regarding a food safety testing program the agency conducts to measure pesticide residues in food. When I inquired about the status of my request, after the requisite 20 working days had passed, the agency told me it was waiting for its drug evaluation unit and its center for veterinary medicine to search for records. My protests that the records obviously were not housed in the FDA’s drug or veterinary units got me nowhere. After several months, the FDA acknowledged the request should be assigned to its food safety unit, but then I was told a response would be delayed because there was a “backlog due to staff changes.” I was also told some records had to be cleared with the Environmental Protection Agency, but the FDA FOIA officer assigned to my request wasn’t clear on how to make that referral. I’ve since been told the agency has found several hundreds of records that are responsive to my request, but all I’ve actually received are a litany of excuses and delays, and a handful of records with several sections blacked out.

The FDA has repeatedly cited the infamous “(b)(5)” exemption, which allows agencies to redact information they deem part of a “deliberative process.” The House committee found that the (b)(5) exemption is misapplied by federal agencies so frequently that it is known as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.

And it’s not just federal agencies working to block public access to information that rightfully belongs to the public. Many of our public universities have also been found balking at complying with state open records laws. The organization I work for, the consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know, last month filed a lawsuit against the University of California-Davis after the university failed for more than a year and a half to turn over public records. As well, state officials in Michigan were exposed last year promoting the charging of exorbitant fees as a way to discourage records requests. And North Carolina state officials are being sued for circumventing the public records law in that state, also with delays and unreasonable fees.

These are not trivial matters. Information is being withheld about the safety of our food and the chemicals in our environment, housing and home lending programs, banking oversight, police actions, customs and border control concerns, election issues and more. Without factual information about the workings of government, the public cannot make informed choices at the ballot box or even know whether to support or oppose public policies.

Former President Jimmy Carter said: “Most often, the revelation of the truth, even if it’s unpleasant, is beneficial.”

One provision of the new law signed this June is the formation of the Chief  FOIA Officers Council (CFO), a group of federal agency FOIA officials who are charged with developing recommendations for increasing FOIA compliance and working on initiatives that will increase transparency.  The group is holding a public meeting Sept. 15. Journalists and others interested are encouraged to attend.

It’s a good small step forward. But our leaders in Washington can, and should, do more to ensure that the truth about our government is not so hard to find.

(Article originally appeared in The Hill http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/healthcare/294192-how-freedom-falls-broken-foia-far-from-healing-as-us-agencies)

GMOs 2.0: Is Synthetic Biology Heading to a Food or Drink Near You?

Print Email Share Tweet
Old school stevia.

Old school stevia plant made by nature.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

By Stacy Malkan

Our culture is smitten with the notion that technology can save us – or at least create great business opportunities! Cargill, for example, is working on a new food technology that mimics stevia, a sugar substitute derived from plant leaves, for the “exploding sports nutrition market.”

Cargill’s new product, EverSweet, uses genetically engineered yeast to convert sugar molecules to mimic the properties of stevia, with no need for the plant itself.

It was developed using synthetic biology (or “synbio” for short), a new form of genetic engineering that involves changing or creating DNA to artificially synthesize compounds rather than extract them from natural sources – a process sometimes referred to as GMOs 2.0.

On June 1, U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for EverSweet with a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designation. Eventually it could be used in “everything from dairy to tabletop sweeteners and alcoholic beverages, but low or zero calorie beverages are the sweet spot,” according to Food Navigator.

And so begins the next new food technology revolution: corporations racing to move food production from the land to the lab without laws or regulations in place that require scientific assessments or transparency.

How will they sell synthetic biology to consumers?

A big challenge facing synthetic biology is that today’s consumers want fresh natural foods with simple clear labels – what Food Business News dubbed the “trend of the year” last year.

“Why would we want synbio foods?” Eve Turrow Paul, a writer and corporate brand advisor, asked rhetorically in The Huffington Post. “Well, a few reasons. Number one on the list is climate change.”

Climate change is the number one reason for synthetic biology? What about capturing the exploding sports nutrition market?

Therein lies the PR challenge facing new food technologies: how to position food products created with strange-sounding lab techniques for the purposes of patents and profits as something safe that actually benefits consumers.

The largest agribusiness, food and synthetic biology companies got together in San Francisco in 2014 to discuss this PR challenge.

Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth, who attended the meeting, described it as “an alarming insight into the synthetic biology industry’s process of creating a sugar-coated media narrative to confuse the public, ignore the risks, and claim the mantle of ‘sustainability’ for potentially profitable new synthetic biology products.”

PR strategists at the meeting recommended avoiding terms like “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” (too scary, too much backlash), and suggested going with more vague descriptions such as “fermentation derived” and “nature identical.”

They recommended focusing the media on stories of hope and promise, capturing public emotion, and making food activists “feel like we are we are all marching under the same banner” for food sustainability, transparency and food sovereignty.

Targeting transparency

Somebody was listening. The story about Cargill’s big stevia opportunity didn’t mention genetic engineering or synthetic biology, but did describe “fermentation as a path.” It ended with a promise that Cargill has nothing to hide about how the ingredients are made and will clearly and accurately label products.

“We have targeted this space in a completely transparent manner,” said Steve Fabro, Cargill global programs marketing manager.

The new ingredient coincides with big changes at Cargill. After two years of declining profits, America’s largest private company is repositioning itself “to satisfy consumers in Western markets who are shying away from the mainstream food brands that rely on low-cost, commoditized ingredients that have been the specialty of companies like Cargill,” reported Jacob Bunge in the Wall Street Journal.

Consumers “want to know what’s in their food, who made it, what kind of company is it, are they ethical, how do they treat animals?” Cargill Chief Executive David MacLennan told Bunge.

With synthetic biology ingredients, that could prove to be a challenge.

When asked exactly how they plan to label EverSweet, Cargill communications lead Kelly Sheehan responded via email, 

“Consumers should be able to tell the difference on a label between stevia from leaf and steviol glycosides produced through fermentation. Stevia from leaf in the US is currently labeled as ‘stevia leaf extract.’ EverSweet will be labeled in the US as ‘steviol glycosides’ or ‘Reb M and Reb D.’ In the EU the expectation is EverSweet would receive a modified E number to differentiate the two products.”

 Sheehan added, “Cargill is committed to transparency and sharing product information at Cargill.com from ‘stevia leaf extract’ to ‘non-GMO stevia leaf extract.’”

Confusing? Perhaps, but labeling decisions may be left up to the companies. As with first-generation GMOs, labeling is not required in the U.S. (although Vermont will require GMO labeling starting July 1 unless Congress intervenes) and companies are free to market their products as “natural” (although FDA is reviewing use of that term). There are no safety standards and no testing requirements for foods developed with synthetic biology.

This lax system pleases the companies eager to patent new food technologies.

As Perls described the synthetic biology PR meeting, “A clear theme at the meeting was that the fewer government regulations the better, and industry self-regulation is best. There was a general consensus in the room that the public should not be concerned about a lack of data on safety; however, the internal and self-funded corporate studies are proprietary and cannot be shared with the public.”

Where have we heard this story before?

Proprietary information, patents, lack of transparency and industry self-scrutiny have been the hallmarks of first-generation GMOs – and the fuel for growing consumer distrust and demands for transparency that have caught the food industry off guard.

The corporations that profit from traditional GMOs – primarily Monsanto, Dow and other big chemical-seed companies – have responded to the backlash as big corporations often do: by throwing huge amounts of money at PR operations to attack critics and spin their products as necessary to feed the world.

The marketing promises have failed to materialize. A May 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences found no evidence that GMO crops had changed the rate of increase in yields, and no clear benefits for small, impoverished farms in developing countries.

Nevertheless, GMO proponents claim, as Bill Gates did in a Wall Street Journal interview, that Africans will starve unless they embrace climate-friendly, vitamin-enriched GMO crops. Gates neglected to mention that these crops still don’t exist after 20 years of trials and promises.

Instead, most genetically engineered crops are herbicide-tolerant crops that are raising concerns about health problems linked to chemical exposures. These crops have increased sales of chemicals owned by the same corporations that own the patents for GMO seeds – an excellent profit model, but one that is turning out to be not so great for health and ecology.

The promise of synthetic biology

The same sorts of promises that failed to materialize in 20 years of GMO crops are fueling the buzz around next-generation genetic engineering.

Synthetic biology techniques “could deliver more-nutritious crops that thrive with less water, land, and energy, and fewer chemical inputs, in more variable climates and on lands that otherwise would not support intensive farming,” reported Josie Garthwaite in The Atlantic.

While proponents focus on possible future benefits, skeptics are raising concerns about risks and unintended consequences. With no pre-market safety assessments for synthetic biology foods, environmental and health impacts are largely unknown, but critics say there is one area in which the dangers are already apparent: economic damage to indigenous farmers as lab-grown compounds replace field-grown crops. Farmers in Paraguay and Kenya, for example, depend on stevia crops.

“By competing with poor farmers and misleading consumers about the origins of its ingredients, EverSweet and other examples of synthetic biology are generating bitterness at both ends of the product chain,” wrote Jim Thomas and Silvia Rabiero of The ETC Group in Project Syndicate.

The path forward for synthetic biology

As battle lines get drawn on the new food frontier, some difficult questions arise. How can we ensure that innovations in agriculture benefit society and consumers? How can new food technologies developed to capture markets, patents and corporate profits ever prioritize sustainability, food security and climate change solutions?

It’s going to take more than marketing slogans, and the clock is ticking to figure it out as new technologies race forward.

As Adele Peters reported in Fast Company, a new gene morphing technology called CRISPR, which makes it “possible to quickly and easily edit DNA,” is coming to a supermarket near you.

“If editing a single gene might have taken years with older techniques, now it can happen in a matter of days with a single grad student,” Peters reported.

What could possibly go wrong?

In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that a CRISPR mushroom will not be subject to regulation.

On June 1, scientists announced the start of a 10-year project that aims to synthetically create an entire human genome. The project is called Human Genome Project – Write, “because it is aimed at writing the DNA of life,” reported Andrew Pollack in The New York Times.

On June 8, the National Academy of Sciences released a report about “gene drives,” a new type of genetic engineering that can spread gene modifications throughout an entire population of organisms, permanently altering a species.

Gene drives “are not ready to be released into the environment,” NAS said in its press release calling for “more research and robust assessment.” Unfortunately, the NAS report failed to articulate a precautionary regulatory framework that would protect people and the environment.

Could synthetic biology, gene editing and gene drives have benefits for society? Possibly yes. But will they? And what are the risks?

If corporations are allowed to deploy genetic engineering technologies for commercial gain with no government oversight, no independent scientific assessments, and no transparency, benefits to society will be left off the menu and consumers will be in the dark about what we’re eating and feeding our families.

Stacy Malkan is the co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit food industry research group. She also does consulting work with Friends of the Earth. Follow her on Twitter @StacyMalkan

Glyphosate ‘Revolution’ Growing — Consumers Want Answers

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam 

They’re calling it a glyphosate “revolution.” Consumers around the world are waking up to the fact that they’re living in a world awash in the weed-killing pesticide known as glyphosate. And they don’t like it one bit.

Over the last several years, some scientists have been warning that the long-touted environmental and health safety promises associated with glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup, may not be as iron-clad as asserted. Last year’s finding by the World Health Organization’s cancer research experts that glyphosate “probably” is a human carcinogen sparked a firestorm that only grows more heated by the day. Consumers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are now demanding that regulators step up and restrict or ban glyphosate herbicides – the most widely used in the world – to protect both human health and the environment.

Glyphosate’s current license for use in the EU expires in June, and the European Union recently delayed making a decision on extending the registration due to the controversy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is similarly stymied. Last month a petition signed by thousands of Americans was presented to EPA demanding glyphosate be revoked in the United States. A group of U.S. scientists and activists has a meeting scheduled with the EPA on June 14 to try to convince the regulatory agency it needs to restrict or ban glyphosate. The agency is trying to finish a long-overdue new risk assessment for the chemical.

More fuel was added to the fire this week when a coalition of scientists and activists working through what they call “The Detox Project” announced that testing at a University of California San Francisco laboratory revealed glyphosate in the urine of 93 percent of a sample group of 131 people. The group said it used a method known as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry or LC/MS/MS, to analyze urine and water samples. (The group said it found no glyphosate residues in tap water.) Further data from this public bio-monitoring study will be released later in 2016, according to the group overseeing the testing.

In the urine tests, glyphosate was detected at an average level of 3.096 parts per billion (PPB) with children having the highest levels with an average of 3.586 PPB, according to Henry Rowlands, director of the Detox Project.

Private groups have already been testing foods for glyphosate residues in the absence of testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they have found residues in a variety of products on grocery store shelves. Glyphosate is used widely in production of numerous food crops, most notably with biotech crops genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed directly with glyphosate. The FDA said in February it would start some limited testing for food residues, but has provided few details.

Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist from London who has been studying glyphosate concerns for years and is supporting the Detox Project, said more testing is needed. “With increasing evidence from laboratory studies showing that glyphosate-based herbicides can result in a wide range of chronic illnesses through multiple mechanisms, it has become imperative to ascertain the levels of glyphosate in food and in as large a section of the human population as possible,” he said in a statement.

The Detox Project is billing itself as a platform for consumers to submit their personal bodily fluids for testing. The urine testing was commissioned by the Organic Consumers Association, and one of the objectives is to gather research to determine if eating an organic diet has any effect on the level of synthetic chemicals in people’s bodies.

Earlier in May test results for urine samples from members of the European Parliament also showed glyphosate in their systems.

Monsanto and leading agrichemical scientists say glyphosate is among the safest of pesticides on the market, and essential to robust food production. They point to decades of safety studies and regulatory approvals around the world. They say even if glyphosate residues are in food, water and bodily fluids, they aren’t harmful.

Support for that argument came last week from a United Nations panel of scientists who proclaimed that a thorough review of the scientific literature made it clear that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic to humans. But the finding was quickly pilloried as tainted because the chairman of the panel, Alan Boobis, also helps run the International Life Science Institute (ILSI), which has received more than $500,000 from Monsanto and other large donations from additional agrichemical interests.

The uproar over glyphosate shows no sign of easing. Next month, the consumer group Moms Across America is launching a “National Toxin Free Town Tour” to crisscross the country to advocate for a pull back on glyphosate and other chemicals seen as harmful.

To be sure, glyphosate, which is used in hundreds of herbicide products globally, is only one of many chemicals pervasive in today’s environment. It seems that everywhere we turn, worrisome chemicals are found in our food supply, our water, our air, our land. Heightened consumer awareness about glyphosate comes as consumers are increasingly demanding more information and tighter controls on many aspects of how their food is produced.

Those behind the Detox Project have an agenda, just as do many of the group’s pushing for regulatory restrictions, and those supporting continued use of glyphosate. But the concern about glyphosate’s impact on human health and the environment cannot be swept aside.

On one of its webpages, Monsanto uses the motto “We May Not Have All the Answers But We Keep on Searching.”

The consumer groups pushing for more testing and more regulatory controls on glyphosate are saying the same thing.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post. Want more food for thought? Sign up for the USRTK Newsletter.

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist and now research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group.  Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam

U.S. Review of GMOs Finds Risks, Rewards; Calls for Transparency

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam

A new study of genetically modified crop technology by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offers a mix of observations about the controversial crops, and takes U.S. regulators to task for an ongoing lack of transparency that is fueling distrust by consumers and calls for mandatory labeling of GMO foods.

The lengthy report, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, runs roughly 400-pages and seeks to address a range of environmental, health, social and regulatory issues surrounding genetically engineered (GE) crop technology. It is the culmination of work by a committee that includes scientists specializing in ecology, genetics and crop health from several state universities, as well as experts from the International Food Policy Research Institute, and other groups.

The release is timely, coming as Congress is debating whether or not GMO foods should be labeled, and as the Environmental Protection Agency assesses if glyphosate, a widely used herbicide whose use has increased with the commercialization of glyphosate-tolerant GMO crops, should be restricted.

Both critics and fans can point to findings they deem favorable, but the broad take-away from the committee’s work is that while GMOs on the market today appear not to pose a risk to human health, there should be greater accountability to a wary public and more independent study of a range of potential risks.

The committee steered clear of taking a stand on the current hot-button issue of GMO labeling, declining to clearly endorse either the consumer groups who want mandatory labeling of GMO foods or the food and agribusiness players who want to block mandatory labeling like the law set to take effect in Vermont on July 1. But the committee did state that GMO labeling “serves purposes that go beyond food safety.”

“There clearly are strong non-safety arguments and considerable public support for mandatory labeling of products containing GE material. The committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health… however, product labeling serves purposes that go beyond food safety. U.S. policy-makers and the private sector have the ability to address the broader social and economic issues and to balance the competing interests involved.”

The committee further stressed a need for public accountability when it discussed regulatory reviews of these GMO crops.

“Transparency and public participation have been shown by research to be critically important for appropriate, sound, and credible governance of all aspects of the development, deployment, and use of GE crops.”

The committee said that much of the information submitted to regulatory agencies seeking approval of new GMO products is kept secret, treated as “confidential business information.” This lack of public access to health and safety data submitted by developers creates distrust, the committee said.

“Given a developer’s self-interest in getting a product approved and its control over the material considered by the agency, the lack of access creates skepticism about the quality of the data.”

The committee pointed out that in 2002 the U.S. General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office) recommended that the Food and Drug Administration randomly verify raw test data provided by a GMO developer, but there is no evidence FDA has adopted that recommendation.

The committee said when it comes to environmental problems, the committee did not find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. “However, evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.”

The committee criticized USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for not requiring post-market controls and monitoring of GMO crops, which the committee said could have mitigated resistance problems before they spread.

When seeking to address a number of concerns about the health impacts of consumption of foods made with GMO crops, the committee said that there was little evidence of specific links:

“The committee concluded that no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts. The committee states this finding very carefully, acknowledging that any new food—GE or non-GE—may have some subtle favorable or adverse health effects that are not detected even with careful scrutiny and that health effects can develop over time.”

Regarding specific concerns about GMOs and concerns about ties to allergies, the committee said that “testing for allergenicity before commercialization could miss allergens to which the population had not previously been exposed,” and “post-commercialization allergen testing would be useful in ensuring that consumers are not exposed to allergens,” though the committee said it realized such testing would be difficult to conduct.

NO GMO YIELD GAIN

In another notable finding, the committee’s work countered the credibility of often-repeated industry propaganda that genetically engineered crops are necessary to “feed the world” because they yield so much more than non-GMO crops.

The report found little foundation for the claims of yield benefit, however:

“The committee examined data on overall rates of increase in yields of soybean, cotton, and maize in the U.S. for the decades preceding introduction of GE crops and after their introduction, and there was no evidence that GE crops had changed the rate of increase in yields.”

The committee’s work also addressed another hot-button issue – the safety of the herbicide glyphosate. Though agrichemical interests say the safety of the herbicide is firmly established and accepted by the world’s scientific community, the NAS committee said there “is significant disagreement among expert committees on the potential harm that could be caused by the use of glyphosate on GE crops and in other applications.”

The committee also addressed the dicey new debate over emerging genome editing technologies that are billed by developers as decreasing the risks of unintended changes in the plants. The committee found that this decreased risk should simplify food safety testing. However, the committee also warned that “major changes in metabolic pathways or insertion of multiple resistance genes will complicate the determination of food safety because changes in metabolic pathways are known to have unexpected effects on plant metabolites.”

As part of the study, the committee said it examined almost 900 research and other publications on the development, use, and effects of genetically engineered characteristics in corn, soybean, and cotton, which account for almost all commercial GE crops to date. As well, the committee said it listened to 80 speakers at three public meetings and 15 public webinars, and read more than 700 comments from members of the public.

The committee didn’t provide all the answers, and indeed in many ways, raised new questions. But the committee call for more transparency to a skeptical public was loud and clear. Lawmaker, regulators and crop developers would do well to answer that call.

Are Coke and Pepsi Lying to You About Diet Soda?

Print Email Share Tweet

fatdietcoke

In what appears to be a truly classic case of false advertising, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo call their artificially sweetened colas Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi.

Why false advertising?

It turns out that in recent years, many scientific studies link artificial sweeteners to weight gain, not weight loss.

That’s right. Artificial sweeteners are linked to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, increased appetite, metabolic disorders, obesity, and other conditions that are the opposite of the meaning of the term “diet.”

Talk about sickeningly sweet.

At U.S. Right to Know, we expose what the food industry doesn’t want you to know.

And we think it’s time to can the false advertising. So, on April 9th, we asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop allowing Coke and Pepsi to use the term “diet” for Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, because they likely cause weight gain, not weight loss.

That might just take the “fizz” out of diet soda sales.

Call us old-fashioned, but we think that if a product is labeled diet, it should actually help you to lose weight – and it most certainly should not make you gain weight

And we don’t want any other kind of artificially sweetened false advertising to bubble up. That’s why we also asked FTC and FDA to investigate all other food products containing artificial sweeteners using the term diet or implying weight loss, to determine whether those products are falsely advertised, branded and labeled.

Diet Coke is sweetened with aspartame, and Diet Pepsi with aspartame and acesulfame potatssium.

There are many reasons to be especially concerned about aspartame. Why? In addition to links to weight gain, aspartame has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, higher rates of mortality, brain damage and shortened pregnancies, among many other things.

Hopefully, one of these days, the FDA will pull aspartame from the market. But until they do so, at a minimum, FDA and FTC should tell Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that they can’t use the word “diet” to advertise, brand or label their artificially sweetened sodas.

How National Geographic Got it Wrong on GMO Science

Print Email Share Tweet

Judging a book, or in this case a magazine article, by it’s cover, I was prepared to dislike Joel Achenbach’s “War on Science” story in National Geographic. Turns out it’s an insightful, beautifully written piece about the psychology that influences scientific belief.

Too bad Achenbach got it wrong on the science of genetic engineering, and allowed his piece to be used as PR fodder for the agrichemical industry. I’m guessing that the higher ups at Monsanto and their PR firms have already ordered up poster-sized copies of the cover image, which conflates concerns about GMOs with climate change denial – a talking point the PR gurus have been pushing hard.

Achenbach devotes just one sentence of his story to GMO science, and the sentence is at odds with international scientific agreements about genetic engineering. He writes, “We’re asked to believe, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding.”

What the experts actually say, via internationally accepted agreements, is that genetic engineering is different from traditional breeding and carries different risks:

The United Nation’s Codex Alimentarius and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety agree that genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GM organisms are used in food or released into the environment.

The World Health Organization states that “GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis” and “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

Unfortunately, the United States does not follow this standard for case-by-case safety assessments of GMOs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 1992 guidance on GMOs (still in effect) states that GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to regular crops, but it is not based on any science whatsoever and was introduced by then-Vice President Dan Quayle at a biotechnology conference as part of Quayle’s “regulatory relief initiative.” Here’s the background. For more details, see Gary Ruskin’s report Seedy Business.

For a more thorough explanation of the contradictory and very much unsettled science on the safety of GMOs, see the journal statement signed by over 300 scientists, MDs and scholars, “No scientific consensus on GMO safety.” This week, consumer watchdog groups, including Center for Food Safety, Consumer’s Union, Friends of the Earth and U.S. Right to Know called on journalists to do a better job of accurately reporting on the science of GMOs and to stop relying on talking points.

For the record, at U.S. Right to Know, we believe that GMOs could have some useful benefits in the future. However, genetic engineering of our food should proceed only with full transparency and robust independent science that makes an authentic attempt to understand the consequences, including impacts on health and the environment.

The Junk Food Industry Loved FDA’s Margaret Hamburg

Print Email Share Tweet

Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, announced yesterday that she would soon leave her post.

Here’s one easy way to tell that she was a greater friend to the junk food industry than to consumers:

Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told Food Business News “I commend Dr. Hamburg for her years of dedicated service as F.D.A. Commissioner…Under her leadership, the agency successfully ushered in the most sweeping set of reforms to our nation’s food safety system in a generation through the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (F.S.M.A.). She was an activist commissioner in the best sense of the term: personally engaged in the important issues and always seeking the views of all stakeholders.”

That’s high praise from the leading trade association of the junk food industry.