The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., has garnered waves of publicity with the release of a new study that shows many popular oat-based cereals and snack foods also contain what the group labels as problematic levels of glyphosate residue.
Capitalizing on a California lawsuit verdict that awarded damages to a school groundskeeper who blamed Monsanto’s weed killer, Roundup, for his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, EWG released the results of its study a day after the verdict.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and has been in use for 40 years. It is widely considered one of the safest herbicides in the world, and Monsanto and its new owner, Bayer, have both pledged to appeal the decision.
EWG did not tie exposure levels in the California case to what it labeled problematic levels of residue in cereal, especially Quaker Old Fashioned Oats and other products.
Talking about process
In a telephone interview, EWG toxicologist Alexa Temkin talked about the process the group used to collect the samples, and how they arrived at the conclusion that new restrictions should be placed on glyphosate use.
Temkin said the analysis was conducted at Eurofins Analytics Lab in New Orleans. All of the samples came from packaged food products that EWG workers purchased from stores in Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colo., and the San Francisco Bay Area.
EWG employees in Washington, D.C., unwrapped the packaged products, repackaged them in plastic bags of 300 grams each and shipped them to the lab. The subsequent analysis showed what EWG considers troublesome levels of residues.
As it often does in reports such as the latest one, the EWG touted the safety of organic products, saying they tested 16 samples of foods made with organically grown oats. About one-third of those samples also had glyphosate residues, but at lower levels, all below the EWG benchmark.
That benchmark, she acknowledged, is based on what the EWG determined to be “unacceptable,” and that its standard is more than 100 times more strict than the current EPA guideline.
A person who answered the phone at the Eurofins Analytics lab refused to provide her name and said the lab does not have a public relations person who deals with media calls. She said it is a third-party, business-related firm that tests the samples they are given and reports on what that sample contains.
She said their handling of materials in their possession and the testing processes are fully accredited, but it is not part of their business model to question or disclose where their customers obtain the samples or how they prepare them for testing.
Temkin said individual ingredients in multiple-ingredient foods such as granola bars were not tested, and that researchers assumed that oats would be the primary source of any glyphosate contamination because they are the crop that is “routinely drenched” with glyphosate prior to harvest.
She said that farmers routinely spray the crops such as wheat or oats to hasten maturity and drydown for harvest.
U.S. oat crop rarely requires desiccation
U.S. grain farmers, however, say that the use of glyphosate prior to oat harvest is extremely rare. For U.S. growers, even those in northern states such as North Dakota and Minnesota, oats are a mid-summer crop that are usually harvested in the hot, dry weather typical of July.
Spring wheats are sometimes desiccated if adverse weather conditions threaten the ability of farmers to harvest before winter weather sets in. Countries with colder, wetter climates more frequently use glyphosate as a desiccant for cereal crops.
In Kansas and across the Southern Plains, cereal crops such as wheat, oats and barley are never sprayed prior to harvest.
“Desiccants are simply not necessary,” said Aaron Harries, president of Kansas Wheat. “Most of our growers worry about the crop drying down too fast, not too slow.”
Harries said that grains are tested for specific potential contaminants only if the end user requests it. He said he was not aware of food manufacturers asking for glyphosate testing, mostly because extensive testing over the last 40 years of use has determined, in more than 1,100 studies, that glyphosate is not harmful.
“We do get requests in years when there has been an outbreak of disease, such as fusarium, that can result in the presence of toxins such as vomitoxin,” he said. “Buyers of grain from those regions will want tests to determine that it does not contain such toxins, which are proven risk to health.”
Temkin said the EWG did not test any raw grain from farm fields or grain elevators for the presence of glyphosate. She said that the organization has no idea where Quaker or other processors sourced their grain.
The organization is advocating, however, for stricter standards for U.S. farmers, urging the EPA to conduct another review of evidence linking glyphosate to health issues and limit the use of glyphosate on foods shortly before harvest.
Temkin said EWG understands that it is unlikely the EPA will take action, and she said the organization is pushing food processors to put pressure on growers to not use glyphosate as a desiccant.
Bayer Crop Science, which completed its acquisition of Monsanto on Aug. 16, said it will continue to appeal the California decision and feels confident it will be overturned.
In a press release announcing the completion of the merger, Bayer said:
“As regards the glyphosate verdict in California on August 10, 2018, Bayer believes that the jury’s decision is at odds with the weight of scientific evidence, decades of real world experience and the conclusions of regulators around the world that all confirm glyphosate is safe and does not cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“The National Institutes of Health recently reaffirmed glyphosate does not cause cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, the European Chemicals Agency and other regulators around the world have also concluded that glyphosate can be used safely.”
A Quaker Oats Co. spokesperson responded to an email inquiring whether or not the company tests raw materials for glyphosate residue with a prepared statement, but promised to provide that information if it becomes available.
The prepared statement read:
“We proudly stand by the safety and quality of our Quaker products. Producing healthy, wholesome food is Quaker's number one priority, and we've been doing that for more than 140 years.
“Quaker does not add glyphosate during any part of the milling process. Glyphosate is commonly used by farmers across the industry who apply it pre-harvest. Once the oats are transported to us, we put them through our rigorous process that thoroughly cleanses them (de-hulled, cleaned, roasted and flaked).
“Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are significantly below any regulatory limits and well within compliance of the safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as safe for human consumption.
“Quaker continually evaluates our product portfolio to ensure the highest quality and safety standards for our consumers. While our products comply with all safety and regulatory requirements, we are happy to be part of the discussion and are interested in collaborating with industry peers, regulators and other interested parties on glyphosate."