Scott Prentice, executive director of BioChecked, has been in the food certification business since 2010. However, he's made the most waves with a new certification: Whether food and beverage products contain any residue of the controversial herbicide glyphosate.
Glyphosate — more commonly known by the trade name Roundup and marketed by Monsanto — is the best-selling and most widely used agricultural chemical in the world. It is also suspected of posing a risk to human health. The World Health Organization has labeled glyphosate a probable cause of cancer and California has classified the herbicide as a carcinogen. However, scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency remain divided on whether there is a link between glyphosate and cancer.
Prentice told Food Dive that some within the agriculture sector understand the glyphosate issue very well. Their crops can be contaminated by water pollution or impacted by drift from neighboring fields that have been sprayed by chemicals.
"It does seem like the heartland farmer, the heartland cowboy and middle America gets it," he said. BioChecked, based in Sarasota, Florida, launched its non-glyphosate certification program in January.
The Detox Project also issues a non-glyphosate certification, which it began in May. The group, led by Henry Rowlands, started arranging for people to be tested for glyphosate through the University of California in San Francisco in 2015. Rowlands told Food Dive 93% of urine samples were showing some level of the herbicide.
"People got results back from UCSF and said, 'Well, what do we do now?' I got more than 3,000 emails asking me that," he said. "So, in 2016, we started thinking about how to come up with solutions."
"People got results back ... and said, 'Well, what do we do now?' I got more than 3,000 emails asking me that. So, in 2016, we started thinking about how to come up with solutions."
Leader, The Detox Project
These two organizations issuing non-glyphosate certifications have tapped into a movement driven by increasing consumer awareness of toxic chemicals and a desire for safer foods and beverages. The new symbols jockey for space among the crowded seals and symbols found on packaging today. They certify that foods, beverages or single ingredients have tested at the lowest possible threshold for the herbicide.
Consumer awareness of glyphosate has increased as residues have been detected in various food items, including brands that pride themselves on "clean" ingredients such as Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last year that it would start testing food products for glyphosate, but that plan was scrapped this past spring. The Food and Drug Administration recently announced it started preliminary testing of soybean, corn, milk and egg samples for glyphosate residues and has expanded testing to other foods during the current fiscal year. FDA also noted that it will include glyphosate testing results in future annual reports of its Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program.
However, most testing and certification — as well as informal regulation of the chemical — have developed in the private sector.
The certification process
Food companies contracting with BioChecked for the non-glyphosate certification pay an initial registration fee for the first year, with subsequent annual renewal fees. Samples — seeds, food products, single ingredients — are tested annually by a third-party lab and the documents submitted to BioChecked. The company also charges a certification fee per individual product — the first product is included in the program registration fee — and annual renewal fees for each certified product.
For its Glyphosate Residue Free certification, The Detox Project charges a flat fee and requires product testing three times per year.
"We started the certification program because people are worried about toxic chemicals in their food," Rowlands recently told Well+Good. “We know by testing products that having an organic label isn’t doing that job, and neither is being Non-GMO Project certified.”
He told Food Dive that after The Detox Project launched its non-glyphosate certification, the group was overwhelmed the first month by "a huge amount of interest" from organic companies that view glyphosate as the main consumer issue in the U.S. today in terms of toxic chemicals.
"A lot of the brands that contacted us said, 'How can we clean up our supply chain?,' so we've been looking at what contains traces. Some organic products, their supply chains are never tested," Rowlands said. He said the glyphosate residue problem is complicated by the fact that the substance is often sprayed on crops just before harvest as a chemical desiccant to make them dry faster.
The list of food products The Detox Project has verified so far as Glyphosate Residue Free includes Leaf & Love Organic Lemonade, Heavenly Organics honey and other products, Chosen Foods avocado oil products, chia seeds and quinoa and Honey Solutions honey.
Rowlands told Food Dive that Heavenly Organics and Chosen Foods are probably the two biggest brands that have opted for non-glyphosate certification.
"They feel it might eventually replace other forms of certification because people want to know what's in the final product," he said.
Vani Hari, better known as the Food Babe, called the new certification a game-changer because it offers more transparency and information about the food items people are buying. She wrote in an April blog post that she is working with The Detox Project to spread the word about the new certification. She asked consumers to contact their favorite food companies and ask them to get verified.
"When brands start testing their food and finding glyphosate, they will take steps to clean up their supply chains. This will improve the integrity of the organic label and our food system as a whole," she wrote.
"When brands start testing their food and finding glyphosate, they will take steps to clean up their supply chains. This will improve the integrity of the organic label and our food system as a whole."
Blogger, The Food Babe
Companies opting in
BioChecked's Non-Glyphosate Certified symbol means that samples of a company's product — soybeans, bread or honey, for example — have been been tested by an approved laboratory and contained less than 0.1% glyphosate. About 50 retail and wholesale food products are currently carrying the BioChecked Non-Glyphosate Certified symbol, Prentice told Food Dive.
"I think we have four clients with honey, and we've had grain coming in. We've got a contract coming in ... for soybeans," he said.
The company's non-glyphosate certification is on a couple beverages so far, he said, adding that he receives one or two inquiries per day from potential customers.
Well-known brands already found to contain a higher-than-expected level of glyphosate residue aren't applying for certification.
"Most of the time when people are coming to us, they are adamant and without question already know that they'll qualify," Prentice said, He told Food Dive he hasn't yet seen a lab report for a product seeking certification come in with a problematic glyphosate level.
Vibrant Health Products of Abbotsford, British Columbia, carries the BioChecked certification. Its brands — Silver Hills Sprouted Bakery, One Degree Organic Foods and Little Northern Bakehouse — were already non-GMO. The parent company wanted to add the non-glyphosate certification because of concerns that the herbicide applied to neighboring fields might contaminate organic non-GMO crops through drift.
"There is a growing public awareness over glyphosate entering the food chain, so customers are becoming concerned about whether their food is contaminated, and some even asked us to assure that our grain products do not contain glyphosate residues," company Chief Operating Officer Jason Longden told Food Dive in an email.
"There is a growing public awareness over glyphosate entering the food chain, so customers are becoming concerned about whether their food is contaminated, and some even asked us to assure that our grain products do not contain glyphosate residues."
Chief operating officer, Vibrant Health Products
Since the non-glyphosate certification began appearing on product packaging fairly recently, he said the company hasn't yet seen much impact from the label. However, customers at events have indicated "they are glad to have an extra level of assurance."
Heavenly Organics of Keota, Iowa, has also gone through the BioChecked process to show that its white, acacia and neem raw organic honey products are non-glyphosate certified. The honey, sourced from wild beehives in India, is also certified as non-GMO.
CEO Amit Hooda said he hops the partnership will bring more awareness to the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, showing how they have a negative impact on human health, the environment and on bee colonies worldwide.
"The government needs to set a tolerance level for glyphosate found in honey and create a universal labeling system, because people have the right to know what's in their food," Hooda said in a statement.
Too many symbols?
An ever-growing number of seals and symbols are cropping up on U.S. foods and beverages. They may certify that an item is organic, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, kosher, halal, not tested on animals, non-GMO, not irradiated, non-allergenic, produced under humane or fair labor conditions or that the packaging is compostable or recyclable.
Rowlands said he thinks there are "absolutely" too many such symbols on product packaging today.
"There are lots of certifications, and I think it's a complete mess that there have been so many certifications. They don't mean a thing," he said.
Rowlands' view is supported by recent research from Label Insight, which found in its 2017 Ingredient Confusion Study that only one-third of Americans completely understand what various packaging claims mean.
"This confusion has negative implications for brands, with 45% of those surveyed saying they are concerned when they eat food products that contain ingredients that they don’t understand, affecting consumers’ trust and loyalty towards a brand," said Kira Karapetian, vice president of marketing for Label Insight, in an email.
Besides the consumer confusion factor, symbols can take up a lot of space on packaging — unless they're so small they can't be easily seen, which may defeat the purpose. Prentice noted that symbols just need to be large enough and familiar enough to be instantly recognized.
"Our goal is to get to one seal which would signify that your food has been checked for herbicides, pesticides, GMOs, and people would feel comfortable that it's being checked," he said. "We tell most customers when they contact us that we hope to be put out of business and they don't need us anymore."
Rowlands has a different take on the preferred endgame.
"I would like to see no certification, and by that I mean every product on the shelf should be fully tested — and an app or whatever should show you it's been tested and is safe," he said. "In reality, you need another system that isn't certification."