Tests Show Monsanto Weed Killer in Cheerios, Other Popular Foods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This article first appeared in The Huffington Post)

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

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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

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By Carey Gillam

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

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

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

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

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

The residue issues are coming into the spotlight at the same time that the EPA is completing a risk assessment to determine if use of this top-selling herbicide should be limited. The agency has 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

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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

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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?

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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

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

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This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consumers would do well to keep an eye on both.

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

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

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By Carey Gillam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO GMO YIELD GAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USDA Shirking Obligation to Give Consumers Clarity Over Herbicide Residues on Food

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When microbiologist Bruce Hemming was hired two years ago to test breast milk samples for residues of the key ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup, Hemming at first scoffed at the possibility. Hemming, the founder of St. Louis-based Microbe Inotech Laboratories, knew that the herbicidal ingredient called glyphosate was not supposed to accumulate in the human body. Hemming, who previously worked as a scientist for Roundup maker Monsanto Co., now operates a commercial testing facility located just a few miles from Monsanto’s headquarters.

But Hemming said his lab’s testing did find residues of glyphosate in the samples of breast milk he received from a small group of mothers who were worried that traces of the world’s most popular herbicide might be invading their bodies. Food companies, consumer groups, academics and others have also solicited testing for glyphosate residues, fueled by fears that prevalent use of the pesticide on genetically engineered food crops may be contributing to health problems as people eat foods containing glyphosate residues.

Those fears have been growing, stoked by some scientific studies that have shown health concerns tied to glyphosate, as well as data from the U.S. Department of Interior finding glyphosate in water and air samples. The concern surged last year after the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit said it had found enough scientific evidence to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Consumers groups have been calling on the U.S. government to test foods for glyphosate residues on behalf of the public, to try to determine what levels may be found and if those levels are dangerous. But so far those requests have fallen on deaf ears.

It would seem that would be an easy request to meet. After all, since 1991, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has conducted a “Pesticide Data Program” (PDP) that annually collects pesticide residue data for hundreds of pesticides. The testing looks for residues on a range of food products, including infant formula and other baby foods, and also looks for residues in drinking water. The purpose of the program is to “assure consumers that the food they feed their families is safe,” according to the USDA.

But while the USDA looks for residues of other herbicides, as well as fungicides and insecticides, the agency routinely does not test for glyphosate. It did one “special project” in  2011, testing 300 soybean samples for glyphosate, and found that 271 of the samples had residues. (The agency said all fell within the range deemed safe by the EPA.)  The agency has said testing for glyphosate is “not a high priority.”

In the latest annual PDP report — issued Jan. 11 — once again, glyphosate data is absent. Testing was done to look for residues of more than 400 different herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides on food products. But no tests reported for glyphosate.

The USDA says it is too expensive to test for glyphosate residues; much costlier than tests for the other 400+ pesticides that are part of the analysis, the agency says. The agency also echoes the position held by Monsanto that glyphosate is safe enough that trace amounts in food are nothing to worry about. (This begs the question: But how do we know there are only trace amounts, without the testing?) And all that World Health Organization talk of cancer connections to glyphosate? Monsanto hired its own experts who concluded that finding was wrong.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the tolerance levels allowed for glyphosate and other pesticides has said glyphosate is safe at certain defined tolerance levels, and has actually raised those tolerance levels in recent years. At the same time, the EPA has been conducting a multi-year re-evaluation of glyphosate, its usage and impacts. The agency was due to release a risk assessment last year. In fact, EPA’s chief pesticide regulator Jim Jones said in May that assessment was nearly completed then and should be released by July 2015. But this week an EPA spokeswoman said the report would likely be made public “sometime later this year.”

The government pegged glyphosate use in the United States at nearly 300 million pounds for 2013, the most recent year the estimate is available. That was up from less than 20 million pounds in 1992. The rise in usage parallels the rise of crops genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant, meaning farmers can spray the herbicide directly on their fields and kill weeds but not their crops. Many key food crops are sprayed directly with glyphosate, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and even in some cases, wheat, though wheat has not been genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant.

“It is a scandal that USDA tests for hundreds of pesticide residues but not glyphosate, which is among the most widely used chemicals on our food crops,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group. “Consumers want to know how much glyphosate is in our food.  Why won’t the USDA tell us? “

In a statement that accompanied the annual pesticide residue report, the EPA’s Jones lauded the data as an “important part of… our work to evaluate pesticide exposure from residues in food,” and said that “EPA is committed to a rigorous, science-based, and transparent regulatory program for pesticides that continues to protect people’s health and the environment.”

But given the health concerns raised by the World Health Organization and the rising use of this pesticide, consumers deserve better. It seems reasonable for the USDA to respect consumer concerns and make glyphosate residue testing a priority.

Carey Gillam is Research Director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and promotes transparency regarding the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. She has worked as a journalist, researcher and writer specializing in the food and agriculture for more than 20 years.

A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests

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Also see: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a conflict of interest?  
Washington Post Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto 

On September 23rd, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel admitted to receiving “plenty” of money from pro-agrichemical industry sources.

Following her admission, I thought it might be useful to report on journalists – including Haspel — mentioned in the documents we have received from state public records requests.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation of the food and agrichemical industries, their PR firms and front groups, and the professors who speak for them.

So far, three reporters come up in interesting ways: Amy Harmon, Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. These reporters appear in the context of Jon Entine, who is perhaps the leading PR operative working to promote the views of the agrichemical industry, and its pesticides and GMOs.

Entine is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which, along with the PR firm Ketchum’s GMO Answers, are the agrichemical industry’s two most visible front groups. Entine is also founder and president of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included the agrichemical giant Monsanto.

Amy Harmon

Amy Harmon is a reporter for the New York Times.  She was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and in 2008 she won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

On September 23, 2013 at 7:44pm, Jon Entine emailed Renee Kester: “FYI, I think I’ve talked Amy Harmon into doing a Hawaii Hawaii [sic] story. . .  and I gave her your and Kirby’s email information, so she may call at some point if she indeed pursues this.” Kirby Kester is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, an agrichemical industry front group.

On January 4, 2014, the New York Times published a front-page article by Amy Harmon, titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.” The story is datelined from Kona, Hawaii.

In 2014, Harmon won second place for the Society of Environmental Journalists “Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market” for “The Facts About GMOs,” a series that included the article “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.”

On September 30th, Harmon is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote GMOs. The group is running a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Slate and other outlets.  Kloor has written many pro-GMO articles that have been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

Kloor is mentioned in two places in the FOIA documents.

In one email, Jon Entine refers to Keith Kloor as a “very good friend of mine”.

In another email, on October 18, 2014, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University, emails Adrianne Massey of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), along with several others, to forward an alert from Lorraine Thelian, vice chairman of the PR firm Ketchum that “the hacker community Anonymous is planning a series of attacks on biotechnology and food industry websites…Trade association and corporate websites of CBI [Council for Biotechnology Information] members are being targeted in this planned attack.”  Dr. Prakash writes, “Adrianne I have copied Kevin Folta, Karl von Mogel, David Tribe and Keith Kloor here as well.”

Dr. Prakash cc’d the email to Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy (agrichemical industry advocate) Val Giddings (former VP of BIO), Henry Miller (agrichemical industry advocate), Drew Kershen (agrichemical industry advocate), Klaus Ammann, Piet van der Meer, Martina Newell-McGloughlin (agrichemical industry advocate), Karl Haro von Mogel (member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified, a pro-GMO website), Kevin Folta (agrichemical industry advocate), Keith Kloor and David Tribe (agrichemical industry advocate).

Keith Kloor was the only journalist who received this email.

The email implies that Kloor works closely with the agrichemical industry’s prominent advocates.

Kloor has written three articles that were critical of U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests, in Science Insider, Discover and Nature.

On March 23rd, 2015, Kloor gave a talk for the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Tamar Haspel

Tamar Haspel is a columnist at the Washington Post.  She has written many columns for the Post defending or praising GMOs that have later been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

In 2015, Haspel won the James Beard Foundation Award for her Post columns.

In June 2014, Haspel spoke to a pro-industry conference about “How can scientists best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public?”  The conference was coordinated by Jon Entine and Cami Ryan, who is currently social sciences lead for Monsanto.  The conference was led by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which receives major funding from agrichemical companies, as noted in a September 6 article in the New York Times.

Haspel also moderated a panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”

In a September 23 chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Ms. Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” Later that day, I asked Ms. Haspel on Twitter how much money she had received from the agrichemical industry and its front groups.  She replied, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!

Is it appropriate for a Washington Post columnist to write glowing columns about GMOs while appearing at such pro-industry conferences?  Is it a conflict of interest for Haspel to accept money from agrichemical company interests that she covers as part of her beat as a Post food columnist?  How much money has Haspel received from agrichemical industry interests?

Some journalists have criticized journalists for “buckraking” on speakers’ circuits. For example, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

Haspel wrote in the Washington Post that she will only speak at events where “if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice.  So, I will speak at a conference co-sponsored by, say, Monsanto and the USDA and NC State University, but not an event sponsored by Monsanto alone.”  However, at the June 2014, conference at which Haspel spoke, no consumer advocates were slated to speak, only pro-industry advocates.

On October 16, Haspel is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO group that is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Haspel has been critical of the U.S. Right to Know FOIA requests.  On August 17, on Twitter, she wrote: “The money/time/brainpower wasted on @garyruskin’s mean-spirited, self-interested attack on @kevinfolta! Can we move on to something useful?” Others did not agree with her news judgment.  On September 6th, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton wrote an article largely based on our FOIA requests – especially of University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta – which ran on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The article revealed how Folta, who repeatedly denied ties to Monsanto, in fact had received an undisclosed $25,000 grant, as well as writing assignments from the company, and worked closely with it and its PR firm Ketchum, which ghostwrote text for him and organized media and lobbying meetings for him.

U.S. Right to Know is a consumer advocacy group.  We try to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know.  We believe it is useful for the public to see how the food and agrichemical companies do their public relations work.  That is one way we can help consumers to assess the claims and information they receive from the companies involved in our food production, their PR firms and operatives, and the journalists who work with them.