Internal FDA Emails: Weedkiller Found in Granola and Crackers

Print Email Share Tweet

This article was originally published in the Guardian.

By Carey Gillam

US government scientists have detected a weedkiller linked to cancer in an array of commonly consumed foods, emails obtained through a freedom of information request show.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been testing food samples for residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in hundreds of widely used herbicide products, for two years, but has not yet released any official results.

But the internal documents obtained by the Guardian show the FDA has had trouble finding any food that does not carry traces of the pesticide.

“I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them,” FDA chemist Richard Thompson wrote to colleagues in an email last year regarding glyphosate. Thompson, who is based in an FDA regional laboratory in Arkansas, wrote that broccoli was the only food he had “on hand” that he found to be glyphosate-free.

That internal FDA email, dated January 2017, is part of a string of FDA communications that detail agency efforts to ascertain how much of the popular weedkiller is showing up in American food. The tests mark the agency’s first-ever such examination.

“People care about what contaminants are in their food. If there is scientific information about these residues in the food, the FDA should release it,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor in the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. “It helps people make informed decisions. Taxpayers paid for the government to do this work, they should get to see the information.”

The FDA is charged with annually testing food samples for pesticide residues to monitor for illegally high residue levels. The fact that the agency only recently started testing for glyphosate, a chemical that has been used for over 40 years in food production, has led to criticism from consumer groups and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Calls for testing grew after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

Glyphosate is best known as the main ingredient in Monsanto Co’s Roundup brand. More than 200m pounds are used annually by US farmers on their fields. The weedkiller is sprayed directly over some crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. Many farmers also use it on fields before the growing season, including spinach growers and almond producers.

Thompson’s detection of glyphosate was made as he was validating his analytical methods, meaning those residues will probably not be included in any official report.

Separately, FDA chemist Narong Chamkasem found “over-the-tolerance” levels of glyphosate in corn, detected at 6.5 parts per million, an FDA email states. The legal limit is 5.0 ppm. An illegal level would normally be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but an FDA supervisor wrote to an EPA official that the corn was not considered an “official sample”.

When asked about the emails and the agency’s testing, an FDA spokesman said only that the FDA had not found any illegal levels in corn, soy, milk or eggs, the four commodities it considers part of its glyphosate “special assignment”. He did not address the unofficial findings revealed in the emails.

The FDA’s official findings should be released later this year or early in 2019 as part of its 2016 annual residue report. The reports typically are released two to two and a half years after the data is collected.

Along with glyphosate, the agency has been trying to measure residues of the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba because of projected increased use of these weedkillers on new genetically engineered crops. The FDA spokesman said that the agency has “expanded capacity” for testing foods for those herbicides this year.

Other findings detailed in the FDA documents show that in 2016 Chamkasem found glyphosate in numerous samples of honey. Chamkasem also found glyphosate in oatmeal products. The FDA temporarily suspended testing after those findings, and Chamkasem’s lab was “reassigned to other programs”, the FDA documents show. The FDA has said those tests were not part of its official glyphosate residue assignment.

Pesticide exposure through diet is considered a potential health risk. Regulators, Monsanto and agrochemical industry interests say pesticide residues in food are not harmful if they are under legal limits. But many scientists dispute that, saying prolonged dietary exposure to combinations of pesticides can be harmful.

Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, who is director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), said that current regulatory analysis of pesticide dangers does not account for low levels of dietary exposures.

“Even with low levels of pesticides, we’re exposed to so many and we don’t count the fact that we have cumulative exposures,” Birnbaum said.

The US Department of Agriculture was to start its own testing of foods for glyphosate residues in 2017 but dropped the plan.

The lack of government residue data comes as Monsanto attempts to bar evidence about glyphosate food residues from being introduced in court where the company is fighting off allegations its Roundup products cause cancer.

In a case set for trial on 18 June, San Francisco superior court judge Curtis Karnow recently denied the company’s motion to keep the jury from hearing about residues in food. The judge said that although Monsanto worries the information “will inflame the jury against Monsanto based on their own fear that they may have been exposed”, such information “should not be excluded”.

Canadians Report Weed Killer Detected in 30 Percent of Food Tested

Print Email Share Tweet

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has gone where the U.S. government dares not tread – testing thousands of foods commonly consumed by its citizens for residues of a controversial herbicide linked to cancer. And the findings are less than appetizing.

The agency said it found the pesticide known as glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s Roundup branded herbicides and other products, in 29.7 percent of 3,188 foods tested in 2015 and 2016. Glyphosate was found in 47.4 percent of beans, peas and lentil products; 36.6 percent of grain products; and 31 percent of baby cereals, the agency report states.

Only 1.3 percent of the total samples were found with glyphosate residue levels above what Canadian regulators allow, though 3.9 percent of grain products contained more of the weed killer than is permissible. These legally allowable levels are referred to as Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs), and they vary from food to food and pesticide to pesticide, as well as from country to country. Regulators and agrichemical industry interests say as long as residue levels are lower than the established MRLs, consuming the pesticide residues is not harmful to humans. But a growing number of scientists and medical professionals say such claims are false, particularly with pesticides like glyphosate, which is the most widely used agrichemical on the planet, commonly used in the production of dozens of food crops. Glyphosate is sprayed directly onto crops like corn, soybeans, sugar beets and canola, all of which are genetically engineered to tolerate the pesticide. Monsanto has also encouraged farmers to spray the chemical directly on oats, wheat, peas and lentils shortly before harvest to help dry them out.

“It’s all guesswork, and not based on a lot,” Dr. Bruce Blumberg, Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology in the University of California, Irvine’s School of Biological Sciences said of the MRLs. “Nobody is actually measuring levels of this pesticide in humans. They don’t do that but they should.”

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015 and said years of research on the chemical shows strong evidence of genotoxicity and oxidative stress from glyphosate, including findings of DNA damage in the peripheral blood of exposed humans. Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have determined glyphosate is not carcinogenic, but the issue is the subject of much controversy. Internal Monsanto documents revealed through litigation in California indicate that the company may have ghost-written studies attesting to the safety of the chemical that were relied on by regulators. They also show the company discussing an EPA official that may help “kill” a cancer study of glyphosate.

Oddly, the USDA did intend to start testing some food samples for glyphosate this year, with a start date of April 1, agency documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show. But the agency decided to abandon that plan earlier this year. As well, the FDA started its first-ever glyphosate testing program last year but suspended that “special assignment” in September. Even the CFIA has handled the glyphosate testing in a curious manner: The agency said it would not release detailed data on glyphosate residues found in food because it is considered “confidential business information.”

A source within the FDA said there has been political pressure not to delve too deeply into the issue of glyphosate residues. But both the USDA and FDA have said their reasons for not testing have nothing to do with outside influence and are purely based on the fact that glyphosate is more difficult and expensive to test for than other pesticides, and the fact that it is considered safe. The FDA has said it is working on resuming its limited testing of corn, soy, eggs and milk for glyphosate residues.

“I’m not sure what is going on, but it doesn’t smell good,” said Blumberg, who has been active in lobbying Irvine school districts and city leaders to reduce their use of glyphosate and other pesticides in public areas.

USDA Drops Plan to Test for Monsanto Weed Killer in Food

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has quietly dropped a plan to start testing food for residues of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used weed killer and the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicides.

The agency spent the last year coordinating with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in preparation to start testing samples of corn syrup for glyphosate residues on April 1, according to internal agency documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Documents show that at least since January 2016 into January of this year, the glyphosate testing plan was moving forward. But when asked about the plan this week, a USDA spokesman said no glyphosate residue testing would be done at all by USDA this year.

The USDA’s plan called for the collection and testing of 315 samples of corn syrup from around the United States from April through August, according to the documents. Researchers were also supposed to test for the AMPA metabolite, the documents state. AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid) is created as glyphosate breaks down. Measuring residues that include those from AMPA is important because AMPA is not a benign byproduct but carries its own set of safety concerns, scientists believe.

On Jan. 11, USDA’s Diana Haynes wrote to colleagues within USDA: “Based on recent conversations with EPA, we will begin testing corn syrup for glyphosate and its AMPA metabolite April 1, 2017 with collection ending August 31, 2017. This program change will need to be announced at the February PDP Conference Call.” Haynes is director of a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service division that annually conducts the Pesticide Data Program (PDP), which tests thousands of foods for hundreds of different pesticide residues.

The USDA spokesman, who did not want to be named, acknowledged there had been a glyphosate test plan but said that had recently changed: “The final decision for this year’s program plan, as a more efficient use of resources, is to sample and test honey which covers over 100 different pesticides.” Glyphosate residue testing requires a different methodology and will not be part of that screening in honey, he said.

The USDA does not routinely test for glyphosate as it does for other pesticides used in food production. But that stance has made the USDA the subject of criticism as controversy over glyphosate safety has mounted in recent years. The discussions of testing this year come as U.S. and European regulators are wrestling with cancer concerns about the chemical, and as Monsanto, which has made billions of dollars from its glyphosate-based herbicides, is being sued by hundreds of people who claim exposures to Roundup caused them or their loved ones to suffer from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Internal Monsanto documents obtained by plaintiffs’ attorneys in those cases indicate that Monsanto may have manipulated research regulators relied on to garner favorable safety assessments, and last week, Congressman Ted Lieu called for a probe by the Department of Justice into Monsanto’s actions.

Along with the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration also annually tests thousands of food samples for pesticide residues. Both agencies have done so for decades as a means to ensure that traces of weed killers, insecticides, fungicides and other chemicals used in farming do not persist at unsafe levels in food products commonly eaten by American families. If they find residues above the “maximum residue level” (MRL) allowed for that pesticide and that food, the agencies are supposed to inform the EPA, and actions can be taken against the supplier. The EPA is the regulator charged with establishing MRLs, also called “tolerances,” for different types of pesticides in foods, and the agency coordinates with USDA and FDA on the pesticide testing programs.

But despite the fact that glyphosate use has surged in the last 20 years alongside the marketing of glyphosate-tolerant crops, both USDA and FDA have declined to test for glyphosate residues aside from one time in 2011 when the USDA tested 300 soybean samples for glyphosate and AMPA residues. At that time the agency found 271 samples contained glyphosate, but said the levels were under the MRL – low enough not to be worrisome. The Government Accountability Office took both agencies to task in 2014 for the failure to test regularly for glyphosate.

Europe and Canada are well ahead of the United States when it comes to glyphosate testing in food. In fact, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is preparing to release its own findings from recent glyphosate testing. The CFIA also routinely skipped glyphosate in annual pesticide residue screening for years. But it began collecting data in 2015, moving to address concerns about the chemical that were highlighted when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015.

Canadian food activist and researcher Tony Mitra obtained more than 7,000 records from CFIA about its glyphosate testing last year, and claims that results are alarming, showing glyphosate pervasive in many foods. CFIA would not respond to requests for comment about its glyphosate testing.

One of the USDA’s explanation’s for not testing for glyphosate over the years has been cost – the agency has said that it is too expensive and inefficient to look for glyphosate residues in food headed for American dinner tables. And because glyphosate is considered so safe, testing would be a waste of time, the USDA has stated. That argument mimics Monsanto’s own – the company, which patented glyphosate in 1974 and has been a dominant provider of glyphosate ever since, says if the USDA did seek to test for glyphosate residues in food it would be a “misuse of valuable resources.”

FDA TESTS REMAIN IN LIMBO

The FDA began its own limited testing program for glyphosate residues – what it called a “special assignment” – last year. But the effort was fraught with controversy and internal difficulties and the program was suspended last fall. Before the suspension, one agency chemist found alarming levels of glyphosate in many samples of U.S. honey, levels that were technically illegal because there have been no allowable levels established for honey by the EPA. That revelation caused angst in the beekeeping industry and at least one large honey company was sued by consumer organizations over the glyphosate contamination. The same chemist also found glyphosate levels in many samples of oatmeal, including infant oat cereal. The FDA did not publicize those findings, but they were revealed in internal records obtained through a FOIA request.

Officially, the FDA was only looking for glyphosate residues in corn, soy, eggs and milk in last year’s testing assignment, though internal records discussed tests on sugar beets, popcorn, wheat and other foods or grains. Newly obtained FDA documents show the agency is engaged now in a “glyphosate collaboration” designed to validate the testing methodology to be used by multiple FDA laboratories.

“Once the first phase of this collaboration is completed and approved by quality control reviewers, the special assignment can be restarted,” said FDA spokeswoman Megan McSeveney.

CropLife America, an industry organization that represents the interests of Monsanto and other agrichemical companies, keeps a close eye on the government’s pesticide residue testing. Last year the organization sought to diffuse potential legal problems related to glyphosate and other pesticides in honey by asking EPA to set a blanket tolerance that would cover inadvertent contamination of honey by pesticides. Records show regulators have found 26 different pesticides in honey samples in past tests.

CropLife also has complained to USDA that data from its testing program is used by proponents of organic agriculture to promote organics over conventional foods. The group last year sent USDA a series of questions about its testing, and asked USDA: “What can we do to assist you in fighting these scaremongering tactics?”

The USDA’s most recent published report on pesticide residues in food found that for 2015 testing, 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. But the agency said the important point was that most of the samples, over 99 percent, had residues below the EPA’s established tolerances and are at levels that “do not pose risk to consumers’ health and are safe.”

Many scientists take issue with using MRLs as a standard associated with safety, arguing they are based on pesticide industry data and rely on flawed analyses. Much more research is needed to understand the impact on human health of chronic dietary exposures to pesticides, many say.

(First appeared in The Huffington Post.)

New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions

Print Email Share Tweet

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)

Tests Show Monsanto Weed Killer in Cheerios, Other Popular Foods

Print Email Share Tweet

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)

GMO 2.0 Foods Coming Your Way: Will They Be Labeled?

Print Email Share Tweet

Donate here to keep our investigation cooking and sign up for the Right to Know Review 

By Stacy Malkan

Silenced genes, edited genes, algae engineered to produce compounds that taste like food: new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) made with these experimental techniques are making their way to your dinner plate. It’s the next wave of genetic engineering, or GMOs 2.0.

Will we know if they’re in our food?

Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist, Consumers Union

Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist, Consumers Union

The new GMO labeling law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama has been widely panned by consumer groups because it allows companies to use QR codes or 800 numbers in place of plain English on labels.

But even worse news for our right to know what’s in our food: vague wording in the new law opens the door for industry pressure on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt many – possibly even most – GMOs from labeling at all.

To learn more about GMOs 2.0 and whether these foods will be labeled, I spoke with Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union.

Q: GMOs have been in our food for over 20 years but they have recently been changing. Can you describe what’s new?

MH: What’s new is they are using different methods to cut and change specific gene sequences. There are two basic types: gene silencing techniques such as RNA interference (RNAi) that can turn particular genes off; and gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN or zinc fingered nucleuses used to cut DNA in order to make small genetic changes or insert genetic material.

These methods are more precise than the old methods, but there can still be off-target and unintended effects. When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect. This is why it’s crucial to thoroughly study health and environmental impacts, but these studies aren’t required.

Also, just because the techniques are different doesn’t mean the traits will be. The old method of genetic engineering was used mostly to make plants resist herbicides, and increase sales of herbicides. The new gene editing techniques will probably be used in much the same way, but there are some new twists.

Q: What GMO 2.0 foods are on the market now? 

Non-browning GMO apples are growing in fields now and may be in stores next year. A GMO potato is in stores now but we don’t know where. The potato was engineered with RNAi to not turn brown on exposure to air and to produce lower levels of acrylamide (a carcinogen) when fried or baked.

Canola genetically engineered with CRISPR to tolerate herbicides may already be in canola oils. Synthetic biology vanilla flavor and stevia are also in products – these were produced using genetically engineered yeast – and they may even be marketed as “natural.”

Companies are not telling consumers these products are GMO; instead they are using terms like “fermentation derived” to describe ingredients made with synthetic biology. When you see that term on products, or a “non-browning” apple or potato, assume that means genetically engineered.

Congress just passed a GMO labeling law, but the language is written in a way that could be interpreted to exempt many GMO foods from labeling. Can you explain the problem? 

The first problem is that the law says genetically engineered DNA must be present. That means the law exempts highly processed foods such as high fructose corn syrup, GMO beet sugar, purified oils and some engineered artificial flavors and spices because the identifiable engineered DNA is degraded or removed. Whole classes of soft drinks won’t be labeled even if they contain high levels of genetically engineered corn syrup. Nothing can be done about that now.

The second problem we can do something about. The law exempts foods if the genetic modification could otherwise be achieved via conventional breeding or found in nature. It all comes down to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “modification.” It could be defined in a way that includes nothing, though hopefully that won’t happen because there would be such an uproar.

Modification should be defined as specific genetic sequences that are altered. If USDA defines it that way, these new GMO 2.0 techniques should be covered. But that is going to be a huge fight and it could end up that a lot of GMO foods fall through the cracks and don’t have to be labeled.

On the plus side, USDA has decided that meat, poultry and eggs can be labeled as non-GMO if they come from animals that are not fed with genetically engineered foods, and they leave it up to an independent third-party standard. We need to make sure that standard is created in an open transparent manner and consistent with international standards.

The next step is that consumer groups need to flood the USDA with comments. USDA is accepting public comments until Oct. 23 and Consumers Union will be posting our comments soon to help inform others of the issues at stake.

Is genetic engineering the future of our food? 

No I don’t think so. When you look at the millennial generation, there is a sea change in how people view food. Previously people asked if it was cheap. Now there is a huge interest in how food is produced and where it comes from. People are trying to get food as fresh and natural as possible. They want food grown more sustainably, more locally and in less industrialized conditions.

This is why we see so many companies announcing they are getting rid of antibioticsartificial colors and ingredientsGMOs and other foods produced in industrialized conditions. That’s why these new GMO technologies may not have a great future; most of them are designed for industrial food systems.

There is global agreement in the World Agriculture Report that industrial agriculture and genetic engineering are not the answer for the future of food. The answer is ecologically rational farming systems.

Biotechnology by its very nature is focusing on one or a few genes or specific traits whereas truly ecological agriculture is focused on whole systems. That’s the direction consumers want and where we need to go for health and sustainability.

But ecological agriculture is not something that corporations can easily monetize, and not something they can patent and own. Companies are pushing GMOs because of the profit margin.

What, in your view, is the responsible path forward for genetic engineering?

Along with hundreds of other scientists and academics, I signed the statement “No scientific consensus on GMO safety,” which describes the problems with current regulatory and scientific methods. Our view is that decisions about whether to continue or expand genetically engineered crops and foods should be supported by strong scientific evidence of the long-term safety for human and animal health and the environment, which is obtained in a manner that is honest, ethical, rigorous, independent and transparent.

Given the uncertain state of labeling, what can people do to avoid genetically engineered foods? 

Choose organic food or products certified by the Non GMO Project, which has verified tens of thousands of foods that don’t contain GMOs or synthetic biology ingredients.

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

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam

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

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

Glyphosate, which is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s Roundup herbicide, is the most widely used weed killer in the world, and concerns about glyphosate residues in food spiked after the World Health Organization in 2015 said its cancer experts determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Other international scientists have raised concerns about how heavy use of glyphosate is impacting human health and the environment.

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

Even though the FDA annually examines foods for residues of many pesticides, it has skipped testing for glyphosate residues for decades. It was only in February of this year that the agency said it would start some glyphosate residues analysis. That came after many independent researchers started conducting their own testing and found glyphosate in an array of food products, including flour, cereal, and oatmeal. The government and Monsanto have maintained that any glyphosate residues in food would be minimal enough to be safe. But critics say without robust testing, glyphosate levels in food are not known. And they say that even trace amounts may be harmful because they are likely consumed so regularly in many foods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soybeans and Wheat

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

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

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

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

(First appeared in The Huffington Post)

What Is Going on at the CDC? Health Agency Ethics Need Scrutiny

Print Email Share Tweet

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have their hands full these days. An epidemic of obesity has hit Americans hard, raising the risks for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Childhood obesity is a particular prevalent problem.

Last year, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan said the marketing of full-sugar soft drinks was a key contributor to rising obesity rates among children, suggesting restrictions on sugar-rich beverage consumption.

Though the beverage industry has strongly objected, several U.S. cities have been passing, or trying to pass, taxes on sugary sodas to discourage consumption. Since Berkeley, California became the first U.S. city to levy a soda tax in 2014, consumption dropped more than 20 percent in some areas of the city, according to a report published August 23 by the American Journal of Public Health. A Mexican soda tax correlated with a similar drop in soda purchases, according to research published earlier this year. One would expect the efforts would be heartily applauded by the CDC. And indeed, earlier this year a CDC research report said more aggressive measures were needed to convince Americans to cut back on sugary drinks.

But behind the scenes, mounting evidence suggests that rather than cracking down on the soda industry, high-ranking officials within the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion are instead cozying up to beverage giant Coca-Cola and its industry allies, even in some cases aiding the industry as it argues that sodas are not to blame.

At least one internal ethics complaint over industry influence was lodged this month, according to a source inside the CDC. And more may be coming as a group of scientists within the CDC reportedly are attempting to push back against a culture cultivating close ties with corporate interests.

One recent focus of scrutiny has been the ties between Michael Pratt, Senior Advisor for Global Health in the CDC’s disease prevention unit, and Coca-Cola’s brainchild — the nonprofit corporate interest group called the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI.) ISLI was founded by Coca-Cola scientific and regulatory affairs leader Alex Malaspina in 1978, and continues to advocate for the agenda of beverage and food industries. Some in the scientific community see ILSI as little more than a front group aimed at advancing the interests of those industries with little regard for public well-being.

Still, ILSI’s money and influence are well known at the CDC, and Pratt’s work with ILSI is a prime example. Documents show that Pratt has a long history of promoting and helping lead research backed by Coca-Cola and ILSI.

One item at the top of the agenda for Coca-Cola and ILSI is gaining acceptance for the concept of energy balance. Rather than focusing on reducing consumption of sugar-laden foods and beverages to help control obesity and other health problems, policy makers should be focusing on a lack of exercise as the primary culprit, the industry says. That type of strategic spin is expected from companies that make money off those sugary foods and drinks. They’re protecting their profits.

But it’s harder to understand how the CDC can sign off on Pratt’s involvement in the industry effort. This public employee, presumably drawing a taxpayer-funded paycheck, has spent the last few years working in a range of roles near and dear to the industry: He co-authored a Latin America health and nutrition study and related papers funded in part by Coca-Cola and ILSI; he has been acting as a scientific “advisor” to ILSI North America, serving on an ILSI committee on “energy balance and active lifestyle.”

Until his activities came under scrutiny, he was listed as a member of the ILSI Research Foundation Board of Trustees (his bio was removed from the website earlier this month). Pratt also served as an advisor to an international study of childhood obesity funded by Coca-Cola. And for roughly the last year or more he has held a position as a professor at Emory University, a private research university in Atlanta that has received millions of dollars from Coca-Cola entities.

The CDC says Pratt’s temporary assignment at Emory has ended. But now Pratt is headed to the University of San Diego (UCSD) to take the role of Director of the UCSD Institute for Public Health. And coincidentally — or not — ISLI is partnering with the UCSD on a “unique forum” related to “energy balance behavior” planned for November 30 to December 1 of this year. One of the moderators is another CDC scientist, Janet Fulton, Chief of the CDC’s Physical Activity and Health Branch.

When asked about Pratt’s work for these other outside interests, and asked if he had received approval and ethics clearance for the activities, CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben said only that Pratt will be doing his work at UCSD while on annual leave from the CDC. If the public wants to know if Pratt has properly disclosed conflicts of interest and received approvals for his outside work, we have to file a Freedom of Information request, Harben said.

That is not an especially promising suggestion given that documents recently supplied by the CDC related to employee ties to Coca-Cola were only turned over after large swaths of communications were blacked out. Those emails pertained to former Pratt colleague Dr. Barbara Bowman, who was director of the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention until departing the agency this summer amid scrutiny of her ties to Coca-Cola. Bowman was instrumental in helping direct CDC funds to a pet project that ILSI is working on with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a “branded foods database.”

Email communications obtained that were not redacted showed that Bowman, a former Coca-Cola nutritionist, maintained a close connection with the company and ILSI as she rose in rank at the CDC. The emails show that Bowman was happy to help the beverage industry cultivate political sway with the World Health Organization (WHO) as it tried to beat back regulation on sugary soft drinks. The emails showed ongoing communications regarding ILSI and beverage industry interests. Bowman “retired” in late June after those emails became public.

ILSI has a history of working to infiltrate public health organizations. A report by a consultant to WHO found that ILSI was infiltrating the organization 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.

So should the public be concerned? The CDC says no. But we at the consumer group U.S. Right to Know believe the answer is an emphatic yes. The mission of the CDC is to protect public health, and it is problematic for agency officials to collaborate with a corporate interest that has a track record of downplaying the health risks of its products. Questions about the alliances and the actions of some CDC officials are growing, and it is time the public received some answers.

(This article first appeared in The Hillhttp://www.thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/healthcare/293482-what-is-going-on-at-the-cdc-health-agency-ethics-need-scrutiny)

Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency

Print Email Share Tweet

This article was first published by Huffington Post

By Carey Gillam 

It’s been a rough year for Big Soda, sellers of those sugary soft drinks that kids (and adults) love to chug.

A June 16 decision by city leaders in Philadelphia to impose a “soda tax” as a means to discourage consumption of beverages seen as unhealthy is only the latest in a string of bad news for companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which have seen soft drink sales steadily declining. Nervous investors drove shares in those companies lower after the Philadelphia move in recognition of what is but the latest evidence that consumers, lawmakers and health experts are connecting sweetened beverages to a range of health problems, including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Last year San Francisco passed a law requiring ads for sugary drinks to include warnings about the possible negative health effects associated with the products.

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.

It’s no surprise that the beverage industry, which reaps billions of dollars annually from soft drink sales, has been fearing – and fighting against – this shifting sentiment.

But what is surprising is one of the places where the beverage industry has sought, and apparently garnered, some help —- from a top official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose mission in part is to prevent obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

Email communications obtained by U.S. Right to Know through state Freedom of Information requests detail how a leading beverage and food industry advocate last year was able to ask for and input and guidance from Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, on how to address World Health Organization actions that were hurting the beverage industry.

Bowman leads a CDC division charged with providing “public health leadership” and works with states to promote research and grants to prevent and manage risk factors that include obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. 

But the emails between Bowman and Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola scientific and regulatory affairs leader and founder of the industry-funded International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), show that Bowman also appeared happy to help the beverage industry cultivate political sway with the World Health Organization.

Emails from 2015 detail how Malaspina, representing the interests of Coca-Cola and the food industry, reached out to Bowman to complain that the World Health Organization was giving a cold shoulder to the chemical and food industry-funded group known as ILSI, which Malaspina founded in 1978. 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 emails include reference to the WHO’s call for more regulation on sugary soft drinks, saying they were contributing to rising obesity rates among children, and complain about Chan’s comments.

“Any ideas how we can have a conversation with WHO?” Malaspina writes in a June 26, 2015 email to Bowman. He forwards her an email string that includes top executives from Coca-Cola and ILSI and expresses worry about negative reports about products with high sugar content, and sugary soda tax plans in Europe. In the email string, Malaspina says the WHO actions can have “significant negative consequences on a global basis.”

“The threat to our business is serious,” Malaspina writes in the email chain he sends to Bowman. On the email chain are Coca-Cola Chief Public Affairs and Communications Officer Clyde Tuggle as well as Coca-Cola’s Chief Technical Officer Ed Hays.

Directly he tells Bowman that officials at WHO “do not want to work with industry.” And says: “Something must be done.”

Bowman replies that someone with Gates or “Bloomberg people” may have close connections that could open a door at WHO. She also suggests he try someone at PEPFAR program, a U.S. government-backed program that makes HIV/AIDS drugs available through the sub-Saharan Africa. She tells him that “WHO is key to the network.” She writes that she “will be in touch about getting together.”

In a subsequent June 27, 2015 email, Malaspina thanks her for the “very good leads” and says “we would want WHO to start working with ILSI again… and for WHO to not only consider sugary foods as the only cause of obesity but to consider also the life style changes that have been occurring throughout the Universe.” He then suggests he and Bowman meet for dinner soon.

The fact that a high-level U.S. health official is communicating in this way with a beverage industry leader appears improper, according to Marion Nestle, author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.

“These emails suggest that ILSI, Coca-Cola, and researchers funded by Coca-Cola have an ‘in’ with a prominent CDC official,” Nestle said. “The official appears to be interested in helping these groups organize opposition to “eat less sugar” and “disclose industry funding” recommendations. The invitation to dinner suggests a cozy relationship… This appearance of conflict of interest is precisely why policies for engagement with industry are needed for federal officials.”

But CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben said the emails do not necessarily represent a conflict or problem.

“It is not unusual for CDC to be in touch with people on all sides of an issue.” Harben said.

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.” Lustig said he finds it “interesting” that the CDC has yet to take a stance on limiting sugar consumption, despite the WHO concerns about links to disease. Lustig directs UCSF’s WATCH program (Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health), and is co-founder of the non-profit Institute for Responsible Nutrition.

Neither Bowman nor Malaspina responded to requests for comment.

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.

In a February 2015 email from Bowman to Malaspina she shared an email she had received from a USDA official with the subject line “FOR YOUR REVIEW: Draft Principles from Dec 8 Public Private Partnerships Meeting.” The email from David Klurfeld, national program leader for human nutrition at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, quoted an article from the BMJ medical journal stressing a need for public/private partnerships, and included a quote about a “strong tide of sanctimony in British public health.” Bowman tells Malaspina: “This may be of interest. Check out the BMJ correspondence especially.”

In a March 18, 2015 email from Bowman to Malaspina she forwarded an email regarding the new policy brief to curb global sugar consumption she received from the World Cancer Research Fund International. Malaspina then shared the communications with Coca-Cola officials and others.

In a separate March 2015 email, Bowman sent Malaspina some CDC summaries of reports and says she would appreciate his “thoughts and comments.”

Bowman, who holds a PhD in human nutrition and nutritional biology, has worked at the CDC since 1992, and has held several senior leadership positions there. She was appointed director of the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention in the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at CDC in February 2013.

Malaspina has also had a long career in his field of expertise. The veteran Coca-Cola executive founded ILSI in 1978 with help from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other food industry players and ran it until 1991. 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.

Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist and research director for U.S. Right to Know, a non-profit consumer education group. Follow her on Twitter @CareyGillam

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

Print Email Share Tweet
Old school stevia.

Old school stevia plant made by nature.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

By Stacy Malkan

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

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

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

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

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

How will they sell synthetic biology to consumers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Targeting transparency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where have we heard this story before?

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

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

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

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

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

The promise of synthetic biology

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

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

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

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

The path forward for synthetic biology

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

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

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

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

What could possibly go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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