Should consumers worry about glyphosate residue in food and beverages?
- A recent study found glyphosate levels in orange juice ranged from 2.99 parts per billion for Safeway's Signature Farms brand to 17.16 ppb for Tropicana, according to Bloomberg. The study was commissioned by Moms Across America, a nonprofit advocacy group, and conducted by Health Research Institute Laboratories. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Montsanto's Roundup, the most commonly used weed killer in the world.
- The levels found in the latest study are lower than those found in the group's study from last year, which ranged from 4.33 to 26.05 ppb. Bloomberg reported no one was sure why this year's results showed a decrease. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's tolerance level for glyphosate in citrus fruit is 500 ppb.
- The Juice Products Association, an industry lobbying group, and several juice retailers told Bloomberg they follow federal and state regulations. The association expressed doubts about the new study’s results because the method used was created by Monsanto for testing milk. Bill Reeves, a Bayer toxicologist, told Bloomberg that, "The numbers may be accurate, but the conclusion that there's something to be concerned about is inaccurate."
Consumer concerns about exposure to glyphosate continue to increase as more studies reveal its presence in popular food items such as cereals, juices and ice cream. But the value of study findings continues to be debated in both legal courts and the court of public opinion.
In August, a California jury awarded $289 million to a former school groundskeeper who said his cancer was caused by exposure to the herbicide. Bayer — the German pharmaceutical and pesticide conglomerate which acquired Monsanto in June for $63 billion — asked a state court to set aside that decision, but last week failed to persuade the judge. However, the damage award was lowered to $78.6 million.
Following that lawsuit, General Mills was also sued by a plaintiff claiming the company failed to disclose glyphosate was in its popular Cheerios cereal. And the cases don't stop there. In addition to those suits, Bloomberg reported that about 8,700 other plaintiffs have filed similar complaints claiming that glyphosate causes cancer.
While Monsanto denies that glyphosate causes cancer, in 2015, the World Health Organization said the chemical can probably be linked to the disease. California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment also labeled glyphosate as "known to cause cancer" and classified the chemical as carcinogenic under Proposition 65 in 2017. When Monsanto challenged the listing, it lost the fight in August when the California Supreme Court refused to hear its appeal.
Consumers generally don't want chemical residues in their food — nor artificial colors, flavors or ingredients — so the more studies and lawsuits that crop up about glyphosate, the more they're likely to seek out and purchase "free-from" products, which many consider to be healthier. There are also "non-glyphosate" certifications brands can apply and be tested for, and if the levels found are low enough, the products will carry the label.
The FDA 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 release them. Once released, that information could sway the public about the chemical's relative safety. In the meantime, there may be conflicting interpretations about how serious residues in food might be — especially since this latest study found they were declining, at least in orange juice. Bloomberg noted, though, that additional studies are underway on glyphosate's safety at everyday exposure levels, so more research is coming.
While the debate rages on, manufacturers might consider working back through their supply chains and talking to suppliers about reducing or eliminating the use of glyphosate and letting customers know about the process. Achieving a "non-glyphosate" certificate might also help elevate brands above the competition. Food companies would likely incur higher costs in making such a transition, but the long-term benefits could outweigh the investment. The issue doesn't appear to be going away, so being proactive could keep them being caught in a potential consumer or legal backlash.