Six days after a jury awarded a former school groundskeeper $289 million because glyphosate in Monsanto's Roundup weed killer probably caused his cancer, a Florida woman has sued General Mills for an alleged failure to reveal the presence of glyphosate in its Cheerios cereal products.
According to Food Navigator, plaintiff Mounira Doss claims Cheerios tested by the Environmental Working Group earlier this month contained 470 to 530 parts per billion (ppb) of glyphosate. Food Navigator noted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set allowable glyphosate levels in grains at 30,000 ppb. However, EWG's health benchmark is 160 ppb.
Mike Siemienas, a spokesman for General Mills, told the publication the company's products are safe and meet regulatory safety levels. "The EPA has researched this issue and has set rules that we follow as do farmers who grow crops including wheat and oats," he said. "We continue to work closely with farmers, our suppliers and conservation organizations to minimize the use of pesticides on the crops and ingredients we use in our foods."
It was only a matter of time before complaints like this cropped up after the $289-million San Francisco jury verdict issued Aug. 10 — which Monsanto new parent Bayer plans to appeal. It may be the first of many taking aim at glyphosate residues in General Mills' and other food products.
Most food-related glyphosate litigation has not been successful, usually because the complaints were based on arguments the court found less than persuasive. A Minnesota class-action lawsuit filed in 2016, for example, argued that General Mills' Nature Valley granola bars were mislabeled as "natural" when they contained glyphosate residues, but the judge found that implausible and dismissed the complaint last year.
Other legal complaints rely on scientific findings about whether glyphosate is safe or causes cancer in humans. There are about 8,000 lawsuits against Monsanto still to be heard, according to Reuters, all claiming that glyphosate has caused cancer. The company has rejected such claims and said not only that the chemical doesn't cause cancer, but that it has "a more than 40-year history of safe use." It will be interesting to see how cases are handled now that Monsanto is part of Bayer since it could depend on how much risk and expense the pharmaceutical giant is willing to take on.
Meanwhile, concerns are increasing about glyphosate in the food supply. In 2015, the World Health Organization said glyphosate can probably be linked to cancer. California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment labeled glyphosate as "known to cause cancer" and classified the chemical as carcinogenic under Proposition 65 in 2017. Monsanto challenged the listing but lost that fight last week when the California Supreme Court refused to hear its appeal.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been testing for glyphosate in the food supply for the past two years and, according to Politico, is evaluating the results and plans to eventually release them. That information, once it appears, could also sway the court of public opinion about the chemical's relative safety.
Given the currenet legal and political environment, it might be wise for food manufacturers to proactively test their products for glyphosate residues and advertise the results. It may no longer be enough to say that products are safe because they meet EPA glyphosate standards, as PepsiCo's Quaker Oats and General Mills recently did after the EWG test results were released. In a statement, the environmental group's president, Ken Cook, called that a "tone-deaf response" that ignored public health concerns.
"It is especially disappointing because these two multi-billion dollar companies can take the simple step of telling their oat farmers to stop using glyphosate as a harvest-time desiccant on their crops," Cook said. "The oat products we tested from a number of other companies had glyphosate levels well below our children’s health-protective benchmark, so it is possible to produce and sell foods that do not contain unsafe levels of glyphosate."
Manufacturers also could choose to have their products certified as glyphosate-free in order to win over concerned consumers. It's hard to put a price tag on public confidence, and it might make sense for companies to get ahead of the problem and pay for such a certification rather than find its products on a list of those recently tested by an outside group and found to have high glyphosate levels based on their standards.
These food companies also might work through their supply chains and talk to suppliers about reducing or eliminating the use of glyphosate and letting customers know about the process. They would likely incur higher costs in making this transition, but the long-term customer benefits would likely outweigh the investment.
Even if Monsanto is successful in appealing the $289-million verdict and General Mills beats the class-action lawsuit involving Cheerios, the damage may have been done if consumers no longer trust products containing ingredients on which glyphosate is used. That would be a very expensive outcome and one whose ramifications could last for a very long time.