New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions

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As Americans gather their families to share a Thanksgiving meal this week, new government data offers a potentially unappetizing assessment of the U.S. food supply: Residues of many types of insecticides, fungicides and weed killing chemicals have been found in roughly 85 percent of thousands of foods tested.

Data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows varying levels of pesticide residues in everything from mushrooms to potatoes and grapes to green beans. One sample of strawberries contained residues of 20 pesticides, according to the “Pesticide Data Program” (PDP) report issued this month by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The report is the 25th annual such compilation of residue data for the agency, and covered sampling the USDA did in 2015

Notably, the agency said only 15 percent of the 10,187 samples tested were free from any detectable pesticide residues. That’s a marked difference from 2014, when the USDA found that over 41 percent of samples were “clean” or showed no detectable pesticide residues. Prior years also showed roughly 40-50 percent of samples as free of detectable residues, according to USDA data. The USDA said it is not “statistically valid” to compare one year to others, however, because the mix of food sampled changes each year. Still the data shows that 2015 was similar to the years prior in that fresh and processed fruits and vegetables made up the bulk of the foods tested.

Though it might sound distasteful, the pesticide residues are nothing for people to worry about, according to the USDA. The agency said “residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health and are safe…”

But some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. Regulators do not have sufficient comprehensive research regarding how regular, repeated consumption of residues of multiple types of pesticides impact human health over the long term, and government assurances of safety are simply false, say some scientists.

“We don’t know if you eat an apple that has multiple residues every day what will be the consequences 20 years down the road,” said Chensheng Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “They want to assure everybody that this is safe but the science is quite inadequate. This is a big issue.”

The USDA said in its latest report that 441 of the samples it found were considered worrisome as “presumptive tolerance violations,” because the residues found either exceeded what is set as safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or they were found in foods that are not expected to contain the pesticide residues at all and for which there is no legal tolerance level. Those samples contained residues of 496 different pesticides, the USDA said.

Spinach, strawberries, grapes, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon were among the foods found with illegal pesticide residue levels. Even residues of chemicals long banned in the United States were found, including residues of DDT or its metabolites found in spinach and potatoes. DDT was banned in 1972 because of health and environmental concerns about the insecticide.

Absent from the USDA data was any information on glyphosate residues, even though glyphosate has long been the most widely used herbicide in the world and is commonly sprayed directly on many crops, including corn, soy, wheat, and oats. It is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicide, and was declared a probable human carcinogen last year by a team of international cancer scientists working with the World Health Organization. But Monsanto has said glyphosate residues on food are safe. The company asked the EPA to raise tolerance levels for glyphosate on several foods in 2013 and the EPA did so.

The Food and Drug Administration also annually samples foods for residues of pesticides. New documents obtained from the FDA show illegal levels of two types of insecticides – propargite, used to kill mites, and flonicamid, usually aimed at killing aphids and whiteflies – were recently found in honey. Government documents also show that DEET, a common insect repellant, was recently detected by regulators in honey, and the herbicide acetochlor was found on mushrooms.

FDA scientists also reported illegally high levels of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam found in rice, according to information from the agency. Syngenta has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to allow for higher residues of thiamethoxam permitted in numerous crops because the company wants it to have expanded use as a leaf spray. That request with EPA is still pending, according to an agency spokeswoman.

The most recent public residue report issued by the FDA shows that violation rates for pesticide residues have been climbing in recent years. Residue violations in domestic food samples totaled 2.8 percent for the year 2013; double the rate seen in 2009. Violations totaled 12.6 percent for imported foods in 2013, up from 4 percent in 2009.

Like the USDA, the FDA has skipped glyphosate in decades of testing for pesticide residues. But the agency did launch a “special assignment” this year to determine what levels of glyphosate might be showing up in a small group of foods. An FDA chemist reported finding glyphosate residues in honey and several oatmeal products, including baby food.

Private testing data released this month also reported the presence of glyphosate residues in Cheerios cereal, Oreo cookies and a variety of other popular packaged foods.

QUESTIONS ON CUMULATIVE IMPACTS

Whether or not consumers should worry about food containing pesticide residues is a matter of ongoing dispute. The trio of federal agencies involved in pesticide residue issues all point to what they refer to as “maximum residue limits” (MRLs), or “tolerances,” as benchmarks for safety. The EPA uses data supplied by the agrichemical industry to help determine where MRLs should be set for each pesticide and each crop the pesticides are expected to be used with.

As long as most of foods sampled show pesticide residues in food below the MRLs, there is no reason to worry, the USDA maintains. “The reporting of residues present at levels below the established tolerance serves to ensure and verify the safety of the Nation’s food supply,” the 2015 residue report states. The agrichemical industry offers even broader assurances, saying there is nothing to fear from consuming residues of the chemicals it sells farmers for use in food production, even if they exceed legal tolerances.

But many scientists say the tolerances are designed to protect the pesticide users more than consumers. Tolerances vary widely depending upon the pesticide and the crop. The tolerance for the insecticide chlorpyrifos on an apple, for instance, is very different than the amount of chlorpyrifos allowed on citrus fruits, or on a banana or in milk, according to government tolerance data.

In the case of chlorpyrifos, the EPA has actually said it wants to revoke all food tolerances because studies have linked the chemical to brain damage in children. Though the agency has long considered residues of chlorpyrifos safe, now the agency says, they may not be.

The “EPA cannot, at this time, determine that aggregate exposure to residues of chlorpyrifos, including all anticipated dietary exposures and all other non-occupational exposures for which there is reliable information, are safe,” the EPA said last year. Dow AgroSciences, which developed chlorpyrifos in the 1960s, is protesting the EPA efforts, arguing chlorpyrifos is a “critical tool” for farmers. In the latest USDA residue report, chlorpyrifos was found in peaches, apples, spinach, strawberries, nectarines and other foods, though not at levels considered to violate tolerances.

The EPA defends its work with tolerances, and says it has been complying with the Food Quality Protection Act that requires the EPA to consider the cumulative effects of residues of substances “that have a common mechanism of toxicity.” The agency says to set a tolerance for a pesticide, it looks at studies submitted by pesticide companies to identify possible harmful effects the chemical could have on humans, the amount of the chemical likely to remain in or on food and other possible exposures to the same chemical.

But critics say that is not good enough – assessments must consider more realistic scenarios that take into account the broader cumulative impacts of many different types of pesticide residues to determine how safe it is to consume the mixtures seen in a daily diet, they say. Given that several pesticides commonly used in food production have been linked to disease, declines in cognitive performance, developmental disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children, there is an urgent need for more in-depth analysis of these cumulative impacts, according to many scientists. They point to the National Research Council’s declaration years ago that “dietary intake represents the major source of pesticide exposure for infants and children, and the dietary exposure may account for the increased pesticide-related health risks in children compared with adults.”

“With the ubiquitous exposure to chemical mixtures, assurances of safety based on lists of individual toxicity thresholds can be quite misleading,” said Lorrin Pang, an endocrinologist with the Hawaii Department of Health and a former advisor to the World Health Organization.

Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA senior scientist and policy advisor who specializes in environmental pollutants and child health, said there is a clear need for more research. Woodruff directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

“This is not a trivial matter,” she said. “The whole idea of looking at cumulative exposures is a hot topic with scientists. Evaluating individual tolerances as if they occur in solo is not an accurate reflection of what we know – people are exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time and the current approaches do not scientifically account for that.”

Critics say scrutiny of pesticide safety is likely to only soften given President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to name Myron Ebell to oversee transition efforts at the EPA. Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is a staunch advocate of pesticides and their safety.

“Pesticide levels rarely, if ever, approach unsafe levels. Even when activists cry wolf because residues exceed federal limits that does not mean the products are not safe,” states the SAFEChemicalPolicy.org website Ebell’s group runs. “In fact, residues can be hundreds of times above regulatory limits and still be safe.”

The mixed messages make it hard for consumers to know what to believe about the safety of pesticide residues in food, said Therese Bonanni, a clinical dietitian at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

“Although the cumulative effect of consuming these toxins over a lifetime is not yet known, short-term data suggests there is certainly a reason to be cautious,” she said. “The message to consumers becomes very confusing.”

(Article first appeared in The Huffington Post)

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.

USA Today Fail: Trump Science Column by Corporate Front Group

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By Stacy Malkan

USA Today fell to a new low in science and election coverage this week with a column speculating about presidential candidate Donald Trump’s science agenda, written by two members of a corporate front group that was not identified as a corporate front group.

The column, “Would President Trump Be a Science Guy?”, was authored by Hank Campbell and Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health, a group that promotes various corporate agendas via its science commentaries while secretly receiving significant funding from corporations, according to leaked documents reported by Mother Jones.

ACSH has made many indefensible and incorrect statements about science over the years – for example, the group has claimed there is no scientific consensus on global warming, that “fracking doesn’t pollute water or air,” and that “there is no evidence” that BPA in consumer products is harmful to health.

A paper trail further suggests that ACSH works quid pro quo for its corporate funders. In one email from 2009, ACSH staff solicited a $100,000 donation from chemical giant Syngenta to produce a paper and “consumer friendly booklet” about pesticide exposures that would help defend Syngenta’s pesticide atrazine. The donation was to be “separate and distinct from general operating support that Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years,” according to the email.

In 2011, ACSH released a book written by Jon Entine, along with an abbreviated position paper, about the public’s “irrational fear of chemicals,” featuring atrazine as a primary focus.

[For more see: Why You Can’t Trust the American Council on Science and Health]

None of this context was apparent to readers of USA Today’s Trump Science column written by ACSH president Hank Campbell and ACSH senior fellow Alex Berezow.

The main point of the column seems to be to plug their pro-industry websites and promote themselves as thinkers of science. Without many facts to illuminate Trump’s science agenda, the authors are left to engage in naval-gazing speculation, and to “imagine Trump championing a moon colony” because of “his fondness for real estate.”

A second big problem with the column – besides the fact that it promotes the science ideas of a corporate front group that isn’t identified as such – is how it normalizes the notion that it’s no big deal to have a major party presidential candidate whose policy ideas are so opaque or hidden that media outlets are reduced to runaway speculation just to have a story on the topic.

Let’s see (belly gaze), will science get a “funding bonanza” from President Trump, or more of that unpleasant vaccine talk? We’ll just have to cross our fingers!

This type of speculation is not normal; it’s not acceptable. USA Today’s readers don’t need to hear theories from corporate front groups about how Trump might view science. They deserve to have these questions put to candidate Trump himself until he answers them.

They deserve to read not one more story about Trump that isn’t grounded in facts and serious journalism about his policy positions – and especially not a self-promotional exercise from a corporate front group disguised as a column in the nation’s most widely circulated newspaper.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group that voluntarily discloses its funding here. She is a former journalist and author of the award-winning book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

Conflict of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review

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By Carey Gillam

It’s been a little more than a year since the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research experts upended the agrichemical industry’s favorite child. The group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared the globe’s most widely used herbicide – glyphosate – to be a probable human carcinogen.

Since then, Monsanto Co., which draws roughly a third of its $15 billion in annual revenues from its Roundup branded glyphosate-based herbicide products, (and much of the rest from glyphosate-tolerant crop technology) has been on a mission to invalidate the IARC finding. Through an army of foot soldiers that include industry executives, public relation professionals and public university scientists, the company has called for a rebuke of IARC’s work on glyphosate.

How successful those efforts will or will not be is still an open question. But some answers are expected following a meeting being held this week in Geneva, Switzerland. An “international expert scientific group” known as JMPR is reviewing IARC’s work on glyphosate, and the results are expected to offer regulators around the world a guide for how to view glyphosate.

The group, officially known as the Joint FAO-WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), is administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO. JMPR meets regularly to review residues and analytical aspects of pesticides, to estimate maximum residue levels, and to review toxicological data and estimate acceptable daily intakes (ADIs) for humans.

After this week’s meeting, set to run from May 9-13, JMPR is expected to issue a series of recommendations that will then go to the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex Alimentarius was established by FAO and the World Health Organization develops harmonized international food standards as a means to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.

The meeting comes as both European and U.S. regulators are wrestling with their own assessments and how to react to the IARC classification. It also comes as Monsanto looks for backing for its claims of glyphosate safety.

Glyphosate is not just a lynchpin for sales of the company’s herbicides but also for its genetically modified seeds designed to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate. The company also is currently defending itself against several lawsuits in which farmworkers and others allege they contracted cancer linked to glyphosate and that Monsanto knew of, but hid, the risks. And, a rebuke of IARC’s glyphosate classification could help the company in its lawsuit against the state of California, which aims to stop the state from following the IARC classification with a similar designation.

Depending on the result of the JMPR, the Codex will decide on any actions necessary regarding glyphosate, said WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic.

“It is the JMPR’s function to conduct risk assessment for agricultural use and assessing the health risks to consumers from residues found in food,” said Jasarevic

The outcome of the JMPR meeting is being watched closely by a number of environmental and consumer groups that want to see new safety standards for glyphosate. And not without some worry. The coalition, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth, has expressed concern about apparent conflicts of interest on the expert advisory panel. Some individuals appear to have financial and professional ties to Monsanto and the chemical industry, according to the coalition.

The coalition specifically cited concerns with member ties to the nonprofit International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which is funded by Monsanto and other chemical, food and drug companies. The Institute’s board of trustees includes executives from Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Nestle and others, while its list of member and supporting companies includes those and many more global food and chemical concerns.

Internal ILSI documents, obtained by a state public records request, suggest that ILSI has been generously funded by the agrichemical industry. One document that appears to be ILSI’s 2012 major donor list shows total contributions of $2.4 million, with more than $500,000 each from CropLife International and from Monsanto.

“We have significant concerns that the committee will be unduly influenced by the overall pesticide industry and particularly Monsanto- the largest producer of glyphosate in the world,” the coalition told WHO in a letter last year.

One such JMPR expert is Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology and director of the toxicology unit in the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London. He is a member and a past chairman of the board of trustees of ILSI, vice-president of ILSI Europe and chair of ILSI.

Another member is Angelo Moretto, Director of the International Centre for Pesticides and Health Risks Prevention at “Luigi Sacco” Hospital of the ASST Fatebenefratelli Sacco, in Milan, Italy. The coalition said that Moretto has been involved in various projects with ILSI and has served as a member of the steering team for an ILSI project on risks of chemical exposures financed by agrichemical companies that included Monsanto.

Another is Aldert Piersma, a senior scientist at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands and an advisor to projects of ILSI’s Health and Environmental Sciences Institute.

In all the JMPR list of experts totals 18. Jasarevic said that the roster of experts are chosen from a group of individuals who expressed interest in being involved, and all are “independent and are selected based on their scientific excellence, as well as on their experience in the field of pesticide risk assessment.”

Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute and the chairman of the IARC group that made the glyphosate classification, has defended IARC’s work as based on a thorough scientific review. He said he had no concerns to discuss regarding the  JMPR review of IARC’s work.

“I am sure the evaluation by the joint FAO/WHO group will make the reasons for their evaluation clear, which is what is critical for the press and public,” he said.

The world is waiting.

Who’s Behind the Attacks on U.S. Right to Know?

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There have been a couple of recent attacks on U.S. Right to Know, so I thought it might be useful to sketch out who is behind them.

A March 9 article in the Guardian criticized us for sending Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover the connections between taxpayer-paid professors and the genetically engineered food industry’s PR machine. All three of the article’s authors are former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But the article failed to disclose their financial ties.

The first author, Nina Federoff is identified as “an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University” but omits that she works at OFW Law, which is a powerhouse food and agribusiness lobbying firm. OFW Law is registered as lobbying for the Council for Biotechnology Information and Syngenta.

We requested correspondence from both Syngenta and CBI — whose members include “BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta” —  so we can understand why Ms. Federoff might wish to defend them without disclosing who her firm’s clients are.

The second author, Peter Raven, is identified as Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is so intertwined with Monsanto that it even has a Monsanto Center and a Monsanto Hall. The Peter H. Raven Library is on the Fourth Floor of the Monsanto Center. A 2012 news release states that, “Monsanto Company and Monsanto Fund have been among the most generous benefactors of the Missouri Botanical Garden over the past 40-plus years, contributing about $10 million for numerous key capital, science and education projects during that period.”

The third author, Phillip Sharp, works at the David H. Koch Institute at MIT — yes, the same David Koch of the Koch Brothers. In their article, the authors liken us to climate change deniers. For someone connected to the Koch Institute to link us with climate change deniers is beyond ironic. Dr. Sharp also has close ties to the biotech industry, as co-founder of the company Biogen.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is acting like the American Association for the Advancement of Monsanto. That, truly, is a loss for science, and for us all.

Also, the Cornell Alliance for Science has been attacking U.S. Right to Know and organizing a petition against our FOIA requests regarding the agrichemical industry PR and political campaigns to defend GMOs.

The Cornell Alliance for Science began last year with a “$5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” the world’s largest foundation, which is a promoter of and investor in the agrichemical industry. The CEO of the Gates Foundation, Sue Desmond-Hellman, worked for fourteen years at the biotech company Genentech.

The Cornell Alliance for Science says that their “goal” is to “depolarize the GMO debate,” but attacking our consumer group is an odd way to “depolarize” the debate over the health and environmental effects of genetically engineered food and crops.

An Open Letter to Professor Kevin Folta on FOIA Requests

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Dear Professor Folta:

Yesterday there was some news coverage and commentary about our use of the state Freedom of Information Acts to obtain the correspondence of professors who wrote for the agrichemical industry’s PR website, GMO Answers. We’re glad to have a public conversation about this topic with the professors involved. We believe that transparency and open dialogue are fundamental values by which we must operate in a democratic society and a truly free market. To that end, I thought it would be useful to explain why we FOIA.

Since 2012, the food and agrichemical industries have spent at least $103 million dollars on a massive PR and political campaign to deceive the public about genetically engineered foods. As the public relations firm Ketchum bragged in a recent video, “positive media coverage had doubled” on GMOs following this PR campaign, and it has put agrichemical industry spin front and center in the debate over GMOs. The purpose of this PR campaign is to repel grassroots efforts to win GMO labels that are already required in 64 countries, and to extend the profit stream from GMOs, and the pesticides that go with them, for as long as possible – not to foster an authentic public dialogue about GMOs.

This anti-consumer campaign has been dirty in more ways than one. It has been packed with numerous deceptions and well-documented efforts to trick voters. In connection with such efforts, the Washington State Attorney General is suing the Grocery Manufacturers Association for the largest instance of campaign money laundering in the history of the state.

At U.S. Right to Know, we believe the food and agrichemical industries must have a lot to hide, because they spend so much money trying to hide it. We try to expose what they’re hiding.

As part of our effort, we made the state FOIA requests to obtain the correspondence of professors who wrote for the agrichemical industry’s PR website, GMO Answers.

These professors are public employees. They are paid by the taxpayers to work for the public good; their university affiliations give them the status of “independent” experts, and they are often quoted in the media as independent experts. But when these professors are closely coordinating with agrichemical corporations and their slick PR firms to shape the public dialogue in ways that foster private gain for corporations, or when they act as the public face for industry PR, we have the right to know what they did and how they did it.

Through the FOIA requests, we are attempting to understand the work these professors did for Ketchum, (as well as agrichemical companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, DuPont and Dow; trade groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Council for Biotechnology Information; other PR firms like Fleishman Hillard and Ogilvy & Mather, and the political firm Winner & Mandabach) on the GMO Answers website which was created as a PR tool for the agrichemical companies.

There are reasons to be concerned about GMO Answers. The website was created by and is run by the public relations firm Ketchum, which also represents Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Ketchum is linked to an espionage effort conducted years ago against nonprofit organizations concerned with GMOs, including the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth. Ketchum also targeted Greenpeace with espionage.

The professors whose documents we requested are using the prestige of our public universities to burnish the image of an industry that has repeatedly hidden from consumers and workers the truth about the dangers of their products and operations. Entire books have been written documenting their reprehensible conduct. Public relations on behalf of private corporations is not academic work. It is not work for the public good. It is the use of public funds for private gain.

Federal and state Freedom of Information Acts exist, in part, to uncover such potential misuse of public funds for private ends.

We are also interested in failures of scientific integrity. To use one obvious example, one of the professors whose records we requested closely mirrored industry talking points in an op-ed he wrote against GMO labeling for the Woodland Daily-Democrat. Did that professor write the op-ed himself? Or was it written by a PR firm hired by the agrichemical industry?

Repeating industry talking points is not integrity in science; in fact, it is the opposite.

We believe that transparency and openness are good remedies for the lack of integrity in science.

We are glad to live in America, where the tools of the FOIA are open to all citizens. And so our work is guided by the ideals of James Madison: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Sincerely,

Gary Ruskin
Executive Director
U.S. Right to Know

U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance – key facts

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Summary

* Funders include Monsanto and DuPont

* Small farmers criticized use of mandatory marketing fees to promote “Big Ag”

* Other partners include BASF, Dow

USFRA is represented by PR giant Ketchum

Ketchum’s clients include the Russian Federation

Ketchum’s work for the Russian Federation include pushing propaganda for Putin, aiding in a campaign to have Putin named Time Magazine’s 2007 “Person of the Year”

* LA Times: USFRA-funded documentary “lobbyist propaganda”

Funders Include Monsanto, DuPont

As of 2011, USFRA was to have an $11 million annual budget.

The funding would come partly from mandatory marketing fees the Department of Agriculture helps collect from farmers, and from corporations like Monsanto and DuPont, each of which committed to an annual contribution of $500,000. [New York Times, 9/27/11] 

Organization Now Claims Budget is “Less than $12 Million,” But Plans to Expand

USFRA says that its current budget “is less than $12 million,” but “Over time, we expect our program budget to grow as more affiliates and industry partners join our movement.” [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/faqs]

Organization Claims a Third of Funding Comes from Industry Partners

According to USFRA, 32 percent of its funding comes from its industry partners.

“68 percent of our funding is coming from farmer- and rancher-led affiliates,” the group claims. [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/faqs]

Partners Include BASF, Dow, Merck and Others

USFRA’s “Premier Partner Advisory Group” includes both DuPont and Monsanto, while its “Industry Partner Council” includes BASF, Cargill, Dow AgroSciences, Elanco Animal Health, Merck Animal Health, Syngenta and Zoetis. [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/affiliates-board-participants-and-industry-partners]

Small Farmers Upset Mandatory Marketing Fees Used to Promote “Big Ag”

 In a January 2014 article, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that smaller farmers were complaining about the use of mandatory marketing fees, or checkoffs, to fund USFRA, claiming that they had to “fork over money to support activities and advertising that benefit agribusiness, but not necessarily those with small and mid-size operations.”

The article noted that USFRA’s affiliates and partners “are just the kinds of groups that are normally associated with Big Ag,” and that the articles on the USFRA tend to support industrial agriculture, including supporting the benefits of genetically modified crops.

But this caused anger from smaller farmers, including Mike Callicrate, a Colorado rancher who said he found it “very offensive” that USFRA was receiving mandatory marketing fees.

“The whole purpose of those checkoffs being made available to [USFRA] is to promote industrial agriculture that is driving the family farm right out of business,” Callicrate said. [Bloomberg Businessweek, 1/29/14]

PR Giant Ketchum Represents USFRA

In 2011, USFRA announced that PR giant Ketchum would serve as its primary communications agency. [Agri-Pulse, 3/24/11]

Russian Government Among Ketchum’s Clients, Helping Putin Generate Propaganda

Since 2006, Ketchum has served as the PR firm for the Russian Federation, helping the Russian government to place opinion pieces in American news sources, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post and MSNBC.

One of the op-ed columns, which appeared in the New York Times, was published under the byline of Vladimir Putin. [ProPublica, 9/12/13; New York Times, 8/31/14]

The New York Times reported in 2014 that “The company still works with Mr. Putin’s closest advisers, according to current and former employees of Ketchum.

The Times reported that Ketchum “said it worked with Time magazine to have Mr. Putin named the magazine’s Person of the Year in 2007.” [New York Times, 8/31/14]

Ketchum Represented Russian Government-Controlled Energy Company Gazprom

Until recently, Ketchum served as the PR firm for the Russian government-controlled energy company, Gazprom. [New York Times, 8/31/14]

Ketchum Worked for Dow Chemical

Ketchum has worked for (and may continue to work for) Dow Chemical. [DC Court Records]

Other Ketchum Clients Include Drug Companies, Chemical Companies, Food Producers

    • Clorox Company
    • Frito-Lay
    • Hershey’s
    • Pfizer
    • Procter & Gamble
    • Wendy’s International

[O’Dwyer’s Public Relations Firm Database]

LA Times: USFRA-Funded Documentary “Lobbyist Propaganda”

In May 2014, the Los Angeles Times published a review of the documentary Farmland, that was made with the “generous support” of USFRA.

The Times review claimed the film “often comes off like lobbyist propaganda,” and a “puff piece.” While the documentary contains farmers who both support and oppose organic farming technique, the film “does not supply statistics or unaffiliated experts to substantiate or dispute any of the farmers’ claims and provide a broader perspective.” [Los Angeles Times, 5/1/14]