Trump Talk Of Pompeo For Cabinet Could Spell Setback For Consumers

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News that President-elect Donald Trump is considering U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo for a cabinet slot illustrates just how dark the days ahead might be for America’s burgeoning “food movement,” which has been advocating for more transparency and fewer pesticides in food production.

Pompeo, a Republican from the farm state of Kansas, was the designated hitter for Monsanto Co. and the other Big Ag chemical and seed players in 2014 when the industry rolled out a federal effort to block states from mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. Pompeo introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” in April of that year with the intention of overriding bills in roughly two dozen states.

In bringing the bill forward, Pompeo was acting on behalf the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents the interests of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies. The bill, which critics called the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” Act, or the “DARK Act,” went through two years of controversy and compromise before a version passed and was signed into law by President Barack Obama this summer. The law nullified a mandatory labeling bill set to take effect in Vermont in July of this year, and it offered companies options to avoid stating on their packaging whether or not a product contained GMO ingredients.

Pompeo has shown himself to be a “puppet” for special interests, and if he is named to a top position in the new administration, it could spell a significant setback for consumers, according to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.

“The worst choice I can think of,” Kimbrell said of Pompeo. “Far from draining the swamp, Pompeo is the ultimate “swamp” creature. He is little more than a puppet for the big chemical and biotech companies.”

Consumer groups have pushed for mandatory labeling for years because of concerns that genetically engineered crops on the market now carry potential and actual risks for human health and the environment. A chief concern has to do with the fact that most GMO crops are sprayed with glyphosate herbicide, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand. The World Health Organization has declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen, and residues of glyphosate are increasingly being detected in commonly consumed foods.

The Trump transition team answer for those consumer concerns about pesticides doesn’t look reassuring either. Trump has named Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to lead transition efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That’s happy news for the agrichemical industry because Ebell appears to be a big fan of pesticides.His group’s SAFEChemicalPolicy.org website champions the safety and benefits of chemicals used in agriculture and elsewhere, and discounts research that indicates harm.

“The EPA is supposed to protect us from dangerous chemicals, not defend them, as Ebell would almost certainly do if he ran the agency,” the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement.

(This article first appeared in The Huffington Post)

Tests Show Monsanto Weed Killer in Cheerios, Other Popular Foods

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Independent testing on an array of popular American food products found many samples contained residue levels of the weed killer called glyphosate, leading the nonprofit organization behind the testing to call for corporate and regulatory action to address consumer safety concerns.

The herbicide residues were found in cookies, crackers, popular cold cereals and chips commonly consumed by children and adults, according to Food Democracy Now and the group’s “Detox Project,” which arranged for the testing at the San Francisco-based Anresco lab. Anresco uses liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS), a method widely considered by the scientific community and regulators as the most reliable for analyzing glyphosate residues. The groups issued a report Monday that details the findings.

The announcement of the private tests comes as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is struggling with its own efforts to analyze how much of the herbicide residues might be present in certain foods. Though the FDA routinely tests foods for other pesticide residues, it never tested for glyphosate until this year. The testing for glyphosate residues was recently suspended, however. Glyphosate is under particular scrutiny now because last year the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified it as a probable human carcinogen. Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide and is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup, as well as in hundreds of other products. The Environmental Protection Agency is now finalizing a risk assessment for glyphosate to determine if future use should be limited.

The tests conducted by Anresco were done on 29 foods commonly found on grocery store shelves. Glyphosate residues were found in General Mills’ Cheerios at 1,125.3 parts per billion (ppb), in Kashi soft-baked oatmeal dark chocolate cookies at 275.57 ppb, and in Ritz Crackers at 270.24 ppb, according to the report. Different levels were found in Kellogg’s Special K cereal, Triscuit Crackers and several other products. The report noted that for some of the findings, the amounts were “rough estimates at best and may not represent an accurate representation of the sample.” The food companies did not respond to a request for comment.

The EPA sets a “maximum residue limit” (MRL), also known as a tolerance, for pesticide residues on food commodities, like corn and soybeans. MRLs for glyphosate vary depending upon the commodity. Finished food products like those tested at Anresco might contain ingredients from many different commodities.

The nonprofit behind the report said that concerns about glyphosate comes as research shows that Roundup can cause liver and kidney damage in rats at only 0.05 ppb, and additional studies have found that levels as low as 10 ppb can have toxic effects on the livers of fish. The groups criticized U.S. regulators for setting an acceptable daily intake (ADI) at for glyphosate at much higher levels than other countries consider safe. The United States has set the ADI for glyphosate at 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (mg/kg/bw/day) while the European Union has set it at 0.3, for instance. The EPA is supposed to set an ADI from all food and water sources that is at least 100 times lower than levels that have been demonstrated to cause no effect in animal testing. But critics assert that the EPA’s analyses have been unduly influenced by the agrichemical industry.

The groups said that the federal government should conduct an investigation into the “harmful effects of glyphosate on human health and the environment,” and the relationships between regulators and the agrichemical industry that has long touted the safety of glyphosate.

Monsanto has said repeatedly that there are no legitimate safety concerns regarding glyphosate when it is used as intended, and that toxicological studies in animals have demonstrated that glyphosate does not cause cancer, birth defects, DNA damage, nervous system effects, immune system effects, endocrine disruption or reproductive problems. The company, which has been reaping roughly $5 billion a year from glyphosate-based products, says any glyphosate residues in food are too minimal to be harmful.

Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA have echoed Monsanto’s reassurances in the past, citing the chemical’s proven safety as justification for not including glyphosate residue testing in annual programs that test thousands of food products each year for hundreds of different types of pesticides. But the lack of routine government monitoring has made it impossible for consumers or regulators to determine what levels of glyphosate are present in foods, and questions about the chemical’s safety persist.

A key reason glyphosate residues persist in so many food products has to do with its widespread use in food production. Glyphosate is sprayed directly on several crops genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide, such as corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and canola. Glyphosate is also sprayed directly on many types of conventional crops ahead of harvest, including wheat, oats and barley. In all, glyphosate is used in some fashion in the production of at least 70 food crops, according to the EPA, including a range of fruits, nuts and veggies. Even spinach growers use glyphosate. In the report issued Monday, the groups call for a permanent ban on the use of glyphosate as a pre-harvest drying agent because of the residue levels.

A recent analysis done by a senior FDA chemist found glyphosate residues in several types of oatmeal products, including baby food, and in several honey samples. The glyphosate residues found in honey were higher than allowed in the European Union.

(This article first appeared in The Huffington Post)

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

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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 Tests Confirm Oatmeal, Baby Foods Contain Residues of Monsanto Weed Killer

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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.

(This story first appeared in The Huffington Post)

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

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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 scheduledpublic 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-Gheissariemailed 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 GIPSAshow. 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

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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)

Keeping Secrets From Consumers: Labeling Law a Win for Industry-Academic Collaborations

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You’ve heard the mantra over and over – there are no safety concerns associated with genetically engineered crops. That refrain, music to agrichemical and biotech seed industry ears, has been sung repeatedly by U.S. lawmakers who have just passed a national law that allows companies to avoid stating on food packages if those products contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Sen. Pat Roberts, who shepherded the law through the Senate, dismissed both consumer concerns and research that has fed fears about potential health risks related to genetically engineered crops, in lobbying on behalf of the bill.

“Science has proven again and again that the use of agriculture biotechnology is 100 percent safe,” Roberts declared on the Senate floor on July 7 before bill passed. The House then approved the measure on July 14 in a 306-117 vote.

Under the new law, which now heads to President Obama’s desk, state laws mandating GMO labeling are nullified, and food companies need not clearly tell consumers if foods contain genetically engineered ingredients; instead they can put codes or website addresses on products that consumers must access for the ingredient information. The law intentionally makes it difficult for consumers to gain the information. Lawmakers like Roberts say it’s okay to cloud the issues for consumers because GMOs are so safe.

But many consumers have fought for years for foods to be labeled for GMO content precisely because they do not accept the safety claims. Evidence of corporate influence over many in the scientific community who tout GMO safety has made it difficult for consumers to know who to trust and what to believe about GMOs.

“The ‘science’ has become politicized and focused on serving markets,” said Pamm Larry, director of the LabelGMOs consumer group. “The industry controls the narrative, at least at the political level.” Larry and other pro-labeling groups say there are many studies indicating that GMOs can have harmful impacts.

This week, the French newspaper Le Monde added fresh reason for skepticism about GMO safety claims when it unveiled details of University of Nebraska professor Richard Goodman’s work to defend and promote GMO crops while Goodman was receiving funding from top global GMO crop developer Monsanto Co. and other biotech crop and chemical companies. Email communications obtained through Freedom of Information requests show Goodman consulting with Monsanto frequently on efforts to turn back mandatory GMO labeling efforts and mitigate GMO safety concerns as Goodman conducted “scientific outreach and consulting on GM safety” in the United States, Asia and the European Union.

Goodman is but one of many public university scientists engaged in such work. Similar collaborations have been revealed recently involving public scientists at several universities, including the University of Florida and the University of Illinois. Cumulatively, the relationships underscore how Monsanto and other industry players exercise influence in the scientific arena of GMOs and pesticides to push points that protect their profits.

In its examination of those concerns, the Le Monde article shines a light on how Goodman, who worked at Monsanto for seven years before moving to the public university in 2004, came to be named associate editor of the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) to oversee GMO-related research reports. Goodman’s naming to the FCT editorial board came shortly after the journal angered Monsanto with the 2012 publication of a study by French biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini that found GMOs and Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide could trigger worrisome tumors in rats. After Goodman joined the FCT editorial board the journal retracted the study in 2013. (It was later republished in a separate journal.) Critics at the time alleged the retraction was tied to Goodman’s appointment to the journal’s editorial board. Goodman denied any involvement in the retraction, and resigned from FCT in January 2015.

The Le Monde report cited email communications obtained by the U.S. consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know (which I work for). The emails obtained by the organization show Goodman communicating with Monsanto about how best to criticize the Séralini study shortly after it was released “pre-print” in September 2012. In a Sept. 19, 2012 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond: “When you guys have some talking points, or bullet analysis, I would appreciate it.”

Emails also show that FCT Editor in Chief Wallace Hayes said Goodman started serving as associate editor for FCT by Nov. 2, 2012, the same month the Séralini study was published in print, even though Goodman was later quoted saying that he was not asked to join FCT until January 2013. In that email, Hayes asked Monsanto’s Hammond to act as a reviewer for certain manuscripts submitted to the journal. Hayes said the request for Hammond’s help was also “on behalf of Professor Goodman.”

The email communications show numerous interactions between Monsanto officials and Goodman as Goodman worked to deflect various criticisms of GMOs. The emails cover a range of topics, including Goodman’s request for Monsanto’s input on a Sri Lankan study submitted to FCT; his opposition to another study that found harmful impacts from a Monsanto GMO corn; and project funding from Monsanto and other biotech crop companies that makes up roughly half of Goodman’s salary.

Indeed, an October 2012 email exchange shows that around the time Goodman was signing on to the FCT journal and criticizing the Seralini study, Goodman was also expressing concern to his industry funders about protecting his income stream as a “soft-money professor.”

In an October 6, 2014 email, Goodman wrote to Monsanto Food Safety Scientific Affairs Lead John Vicini to say that he was reviewing an “anti-paper” and hoped for some guidance. The paper in question cited a 2014 report from Sri Lanka about a “possible exposure/correlation and a proposed mechanism for glyphosate toxicity related to kidney disease.” Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and is used on Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops. The World Health Organization in 2015 said glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen after several scientific studies linked it to cancer. But Monsanto maintains glyphosate is safe.

In the email to Vicini, Goodman said he did not have the expertise needed and asked for Monsanto to provide “some sound scientific arguments for why this is or is not plausible.”

The emails show other examples of Goodman’s deference to Monsanto. As the Le Monde article points out, In May 2012, after the publication of certain comments by Goodman in an article on a website affiliate with the celebrity Oprah Winfrey, Goodman is confronted by a Monsanto official for “leaving a reader thinking that we really don’t know enough about these products to say if they are ‘safe.’” Goodman then wrote to individuals at Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF and Dow and Bayer and apologized “to you and all of your companies,” saying he was misquoted and misunderstood.

Later in one July 30, 2012 email, Goodman notified officials at Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta and BASF that he has been asked to do an interview with National Public Radio about whether or not there is a relationship between GMO crops and increasing food allergies. In an Aug 1, 2012 reply, an official at Bayer offered him free “media training” before his interview.

The emails also show Goodman’s collaborative work with Monsanto to try to defeat GMO labeling efforts. In one October 25, 2014 email to Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs and Vicini, Goodman suggests some “concepts and ideas” for advertisements that can educate “consumers/voters.” He wrote that it was important to convey the “complexity of our food supplies” and how mandatory labeling could add to costs if companies responded by sourcing more non-GMO commodities. He wrote of the importance of conveying those ideas to the Senate and the House, and his hope that “the labeling campaigns fail.”

The emails also make clear that Goodman depends heavily on financial support from St. Louis-based Monsanto and other biotech agricultural companies who provide funding for an “Allergen Database” overseen by Goodman and run through the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska. A look at the sponsorship agreement for the allergen database for 2013 showed that each of six sponsoring companies were to pay roughly $51,000 for a total budget of $308,154 for that year. Each sponsor then can “contribute their knowledge to this important process,” the agreement stated. From 2004-2015, along with Monsanto, the sponsoring companies included Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Bayer CropScience and BASF. One 2012 invoice to Monsanto for the Food Allergen Database requested payment of $38,666.50.

The purpose of the database is aimed at “assessing the safety of proteins that may be introduced into foods through genetic engineering or through food processing methods.” The potential for unintended allergens in some genetically engineered foods is one of the common fears expressed by consumer groups and some health and medical experts.

In comments on the House floor, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said the QR codes were a gift to a food industry seeking to hide information from consumers. The law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want,” he said. “Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”

Goodman, Monsanto and others in the biotech ag industry can celebrate their win in Congress but the new labeling law is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs given the fact that it negates the type of transparency consumers seek – just a few simple words if a product is “made with genetic engineering.”

Hiding behind a QR code does not inspire confidence.

CDC Official Exits Agency After Coca-Cola Connections Come to Light

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Barbara bio pic (1)

By Carey Gillam

A veteran leader within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced her immediate departure from the agency on Thursday, two days after it came to light that she had been offering guidance to a leading Coca-Cola advocate who was seeking to influence world health authorities on sugar and beverage policy matters.

In her role at CDC, Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, has been involved in a range of health policy initiatives for the division charged with providing “public health leadership.” She began her career at the CDC in 1992.

Bowman’s boss, Ursula Bauer, Director, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, sent an email to staff members after my June 28 story in this blog revealed the Coca-Cola connections. In that email, she confirmed the accuracy of the report, and while she defended Bowman’s actions, she said the “perception that some readers may take from the article is not ideal.” She also warned employees to avoid similar actions, saying the situation “serves as an important reminder of the old adage that if we don’t want to see it on the front page of the newspaper then we shouldn’t do it.”

Bowman’s exit was announced through internal emails. Bowman told colleagues in a CDC email sent Thursday that she had decided to retire “late last month.” She made no reference to the revelations about her connections with Coca-Cola or any other concerns.

Bauer sent a separate email applauding Bowman’s work with CDC. “Barbara has served with distinction and has been a strong, innovative, dedicated and supportive colleague. She will be greatly missed by our center and CDC,” Bauer said in the email.

Bowman’s departure comes at a time when several questions about Bowman and her department are dogging the agency, according to sources inside the CDC. In addition to the questions about ties to Coca-Cola, which is actively trying to push back on policies regulating or reining in soft drinks, there are questions about the efficacy and transparency of a program known as WiseWoman, which provides low-income, under-insured or uninsured women with chronic disease risk factor screening, lifestyle programs, and referral services in an effort to prevent cardiovascular disease. The departure also comes a day after the organization I work for – U.S. Right to Know – filed another FOIA seeking additional communications.

The Coca-Cola connections date back decades for Bowman, and tie her to former top Coca-Cola executive and strategist Alex Malaspina. Malaspina, with Coca-Cola’s help, founded the controversial industry group International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Bowman also worked early in her career as a senior nutritionist for Coca-Cola, according to sources, and she co-authored an edition of a book called Present Knowledge in Nutrition as “a publication of the International Life Sciences Institute.”

ILSI’s reputation has been called into question several times for the strategies it has employed to try to sway public policy on health-related issues.

Email communications obtained by U.S. Right to Know through state Freedom of Information requests revealed that Bowman appeared happy to help Malaspina, who formerly was Coca-Cola’s top scientific and regulatory affairs leader, and the beverage industry cultivate political sway with the World Health Organization. The emails showed Malaspina, representing the interests of Coca-Cola and ISLI, complaining that the World Health Organization was giving a cold shoulder ILSI. The email strings include reports of concerns about Coca-Cola’s new Coca-Cola Life, sweetened with stevia, and criticisms that it still contained more sugar than daily limit recommended by WHO.

The communications came as the beverage industry has been reeling from a series of actions around the world to rein in consumption of sugary soft drinks due to concerns about links to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

A critical blow came last June when World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan said the marketing of full-sugar soft drinks was a key contributor to rising child obesity around the world, especially in developing countries. WHO published a new sugar guideline in March 2015, and Chan suggested restrictions on sugar-rich beverage consumption.

Mexico already implemented its own soda tax in 2014, and many cities in the U.S. and around the world are currently considering such restrictions or disincentives, like added taxes, while others have already done so. The Mexican soda tax has correlated with a drop in soda purchases, according to research published earlier this year.

CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben said earlier this week that the emails did not necessarily represent a conflict or problem. But Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, said ILSI is a known “front group for the food industry.” And he pointed out that the CDC has yet to take a stance on limiting sugar consumption, despite the WHO concerns about links to disease.

The email exchanges show that Bowman did more than simply respond to questions from Malaspina. She also initiated emails and forwarded information she received from other organizations. Many of Bowman’s emails with Malaspina were received and sent through her personal email account, though in at least one of the communications, Bowman forwarded information from her CDC email address to her personal email account before sharing it with Malaspina.

ILSI has had a long and checkered relationship with the World Health Organization, working at one time closely with its Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and with WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the International Programme on Chemical Safety.

But a report by a consultant to WHO found that ILSI was infiltrating WHO and FAO with scientists, money and research to garner favor for industry products and strategies. ILSI was also accused of attempting to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts on behalf of the tobacco industry.

WHO eventually distanced itself from ILSI. But questions about ILSI influence erupted again this spring when scientists affiliated with ILSI participated in an evaluation of the controversial herbicide glyphosate, issuing a decision favorable to Monsanto Co. and the pesticide industry.

Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam

(This article first appeared in The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-gillam/cdc-official-exits-agency_b_10760490.html)

Glyphosate ‘Revolution’ Growing — Consumers Want Answers

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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

Organic Trade Meets in D.C. as Battle Brews Over Standards

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This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

It’s “Organic Week” again in Washington, D.C., and attendees of the “signature policymaking event” for the Organic Trade Association (OTA) have much to celebrate. Last week, the OTA, the leading voice for the organic industry, announced that the sector posted its largest-ever annual dollar gain in 2015, with total organic retail sales growing by $4.2 billion, or 11 percent, to a record of $43.3 billion.

“Fueled by consumer choice, organic is the future of farming,” the OTA said in a statement touting the conference, which runs May 23-May 27.

Still, the industry acknowledges that future is clouded by persistent supply shortages in the face of what OTA calls the “seemingly unquenchable consumer demand for organic.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is slated to address the OTA Wednesday, to tell organic leaders that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to make it easier for new farmers to become certified organic and to help the organic sector with its demand problem.

But across the country, in a federal courtroom in California, a group of consumer and environmental lawyers and nonprofit groups are raising a red flag in the face of the USDA push to grow the organic sector. Corners are being cut, they allege. Standards are being shirked, and consumers are being short-changed by USDA National Organic Program standard changes.

A hearing is scheduled Thursday in one key case involving synthetic chemicals in compost in organic production. The Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides sued Vilsack and other USDA officials last year for issuing a guidance document in 2010 that “radically changed organic requirements.” Under the new provision, organic producers can use compost materials that have been treated with synthetic pesticides that otherwise are banned from organic use.

Under the changes introduced by USDA, organic producers can use materials such as lawn trimmings that have been contaminated with synthetic pesticides as compost feedstocks for their crops. Compost contaminated with an insecticide known as bifenthrin and other pesticides are now allowed, the lawsuit alleges.

This flouts a key appeal of organics – the idea that synthetic pesticides have little to no place in production, the groups argue. And the agency violated the law by failing to give public notice or allow for public comment as they created this “loophole,” the groups allege.

“Organic consumers are being misled, and can no longer rely on the organic label to ensure the food they purchase is produced without synthetic pesticides in agricultural inputs,” the lawsuit states.

The Center for Food Safety and other plaintiffs describe themselves in court pleadings as working to protect the environment and public health and to act as a watchdog on the integrity of organic production. They expected the OTA to back up their bid for organic integrity, or at least not to try to get in their way. But on May 2, OTA asked to participate in the case not on the side of the consumer advocates but against them.

In its filing, OTA, along with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) have joined with Western Growers Association (WG), which represents farmers responsible for roughly a third of fresh U.S. organic produce, to oppose the consumer protection groups over the compost issue. The OTA and other industry groups are arguing that if the USDA provision allowing for synthetic pesticides in compost is thrown out by the court, organic practices would be “severely unsettled.”

The groups say in court filings that it would be analytically and economically impossible to demonstrate all compost is free of each synthetic chemical substance prohibited in organic crop production. They say a sudden elimination of the compost provision could lead to costly civil litigation and many growers’ organic certifications would be directly at risk. Unwinding the USDA’s “professional and responsible approach to a complex subject” would be “extremely disruptive,” the organic groups say.

The plaintiffs counter that such claims of disruptive consequences are a “red herring.” An erosion of organic standards may help expand production and meet consumer demands, but such a path could make for a slippery slope and an ultimate demise of the draw organics hold. “These environmental values, and specifically not supporting pesticide-dependent agriculture, are a major driver to why consumers pay the premium to buy organic foods,” their filing states.

Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco will take up pending cross motions for summary judgment in the case. Meanwhile back in Washington, the OTA will be marking “advocacy day,” fanning out through Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and push for policies that support continued organic industry growth.

Consumers would do well to keep an eye on both.

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 

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