FDA to Start Testing for Glyphosate in Food

The federal agency already tests for residues of many agricultural chemicals on food. Now it will include the widely used weed killer linked to cancer.

Pesticides

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the nation’s chief food safety regulator, plans to start testing certain foods for residues of the world’s most widely used weed killer after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts last year declared the chemical a probable human carcinogen.

The FDA’s move comes amid growing public concern about the safety of the herbicide known as glyphosate, and comes after the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) rebuked the agency for failing to do such assessments and for not disclosing that short-coming to the public.

Private companies, academics, and consumer groups have recently launched their own testing and claim to have detected glyphosate residues in breast milk, honey, cereal, wheat flour, soy sauce, infant formula, and other substances.

FDA officials dubbed the issue “sensitive” and declined to provide details of the plans, but FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said the agency was moving forward to test for glyphosate for the first time in the agency’s history.

“The agency is now considering assignments for Fiscal Year 2016 to measure glyphosate in soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs, among other potential foods,” she told Civil Eats. Soybeans and corn are common ingredients in an array of food products and genetically engineered (or GMO) varieties are commonly sprayed with glyphosate.

The start-up costs to implement selective residue methods for glyphosate at six FDA testing laboratories is pegged at about $5 million, according to a statement the FDA gave the GAO after the GAO criticized FDA for not testing for glyphosate in a 2014 audit. The GAO reported that it found multiple deficiencies in the FDA’s pesticide residue testing program, and specifically cited a failure to test for glyphosate, which the GAO called the “most used agricultural pesticide.”

“Maybe we shamed them into it,” said John Neumann, a spokesman for the GAO FDA report. Neumann said the GAO did not demand that FDA conduct such testing, but said at the very least, FDA needed to disclose the lack of testing. The GAO will be reviewing FDA’s progress on meeting all of the GAO recommendations in June, Neumann added. “There were significant limitations to the credibility of their data,” he said.

Both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) routinely conduct such testing of foods for the residues of hundreds of pesticides. Both routinely skip testing for glyphosate, however, claiming such testing is too expensive and not needed to protect public health. Now, Sucher said, the agency has developed “streamlined methods” for testing for the weed killer.

Under the existing regulatory framework, the EPA sets standards—known as tolerances—for pesticide residues on foods. An arm of the USDA monitors meat, poultry, and processed egg products to ensure they do not violate EPA’s tolerances, while FDA monitors other foods, including fruits and vegetables. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service gathers annual residue data for highly consumed foods. But unlike the USDA, FDA holds enforcement authority, the ability to take action against a company, if residues exceed legal levels, though critics have charged the FDA’s enforcement powers are weak.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, and is the most widely used herbicide in the world. Monsanto patented the herbicide in the 1970s, and it quickly became popular for its effectiveness in killing troublesome weeds. Glyphosate use skyrocketed after Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” crops in the mid-1990s, which were genetically engineered to be immune to glyphosate—meaning farmers could spray the pesticide directly over the crops. There are also many non-GMO crops, including wheat, that are sprayed directly with glyphosate before being harvested to help dry them out. Glyphosate is now off patent and is used in hundreds of herbicide products around the world.

The FDA effort comes during an intense political debate over perceived risks of genetically modified crop technology to human health and the environment, and glyphosate residues on food is a key concern. Several states have moved to mandate labeling of foods made with GMOs, and one such measure in Vermont is set to take effect July 1.  Many large food industry players and agribusiness interests are fighting mandatory labeling and seeking a federal bill that would block Vermont’s law.

The FDA move to start testing was cheered by Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union, though Hansen said the USDA must not continue to duck the issue. The USDA’s annual pesticide data program (PDP), in operation since 1991, is considered the primary authoritative report on pesticide residues on food.

“That’s an excellent first step … but it should be part of the pesticide data program (at the USDA),” said Hansen. “The United Kingdom has been doing this for years. Given the vast expansion in use we should be seeing more exposure. They should have been doing it a lot earlier.”

Monsanto brings in about $5 billion annually in revenues from glyphosate. The company and other agribusiness interests say that there is no valid evidence linking glyphosate to disease or illness and trace amounts of glyphosate residues on food are nothing to fear. They say there are numerous studies that have determined glyphosate to be safe.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has largely agreed, and in 2013, raised the amount of glyphosate residues on certain food crops that the agency considered safe. A new risk assessment conducted by EPA of glyphosate was expected to be released last year but has been delayed.

But critics say several studies have linked glyphosate to human health ailments, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma and kidney and liver problems, and because glyphosate is so pervasive in the environment, even trace amounts can be harmful due to extended exposure.

Glyphosate use by U.S. farmers rose from 12.5 million pounds in 1995 to 250 million pounds in 2014, a 20-fold increase, while global use rose from 112.6 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion pounds in 2014, according to recent research in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe by Charles Benbrook. Benbrook is currently a private consultant, but he conducted the research as a professor at Washington State University.

A USDA spokesman, who did not want to be named, said that agency had been informed that FDA will start the testing with corn and soybeans. The USDA does not plan to start its own testing, he told Civil Eats. Monsanto had no immediate comment.

Editor’s note: Monsanto later provided the following statement with regard to its position on the possibility of FDA testing on glyphosate residues:

“While FDA hasn’t officially confirmed to us that they plan to move forward with residue testing, glyphosate’s 40-year history of safe use has been upheld by the U.S. EPA and regulators around the world following decades of study and review.  No data have ever indicated residue levels of more than a fraction of EPA’s very conservative Allowable Daily Intake or any level of concern.  If FDA does move forward with additional testing in a scientifically rigorous manner, we are confident it will reaffirm the long-standing safety profile of this vital tool used safely and effectively by farmers, landowners and homeowners around the world.” 

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  1. Teresa Binstock
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    "Several states have moved to mandate labeling of foods made with GMOs, and one such measure in Vermont is set to take effect July 1."

    Importantly, glyphosate is not a GMO and has been patented as an antibiotic.
  2. victor crocco
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    Test the animal fat and dairy. The fat molecule is double bonded carbon. It picks up organo phosphates and halogens from pesticides like a magnet. This molecule in animal fat goes right to your endocrine system hence the people over 45 years old who waddle instead of walk and resemble penguins are victims of pesticide laden animal fat ingestion.
  3. Grinninglibber
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    Long long overdue.
    Now the Monsnato lies will be exposed.
  4. Teddy1
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    This should not be of any concern to Monsanto. Their paid shill, Kevin Folta, stated that when the IARC declared glyphosate possibly carcinogenic, he said he would take a pint to his classroom and drink it in front of his students.

    He has yet to drink it, though.
  5. annonymous
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    They had tested for it before. It was in 2011 as part of the USDA PDS report, but it hasn't been done since.

    https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/2011%20PDP%20Annual%20Summary.pdf

    This is not something new.
  6. Sage Radachowsky
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    Glyphosate is highly present in millet and organ meats, and also in wheat and oats and cane sugar as well as of course the Roundup Ready crops like canola and soy and corn. It's very high concentration in animal feeds that result from meal left over from oil processing of Roundup-sprayed soy and canola.
  7. Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    The only residue testing for glyphosate done in recent years was conducted by the USDA in 2011 as a limited "special project." The USDA tested 300 soybean samples for glyphosate, and found 271 of the samples had residues. The agency said all fell within the range deemed safe by the EPA further testing was not a high priority. The FDA told Civil Eats that it has not looked for glyphosate residues as part of its monitoring regulatory program in the past for several reasons, including that available methods for detecting glyphosate were "selective residue methods that would have been very cost- and labor-intensive to implement in FDA field labs and that glyphosate levels, if present in genetically engineered corn and soybeans, are likely to be reduced by the processing done to those foods." Recently, the FDA said, it has developed "streamlined methods" for testing for glyphosate.
  8. Richard Morgese
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    Well if Monsanto says glyphosate is safe it must be, right? After all, for years tobacco companies said cigarettes are safe, right.
  9. Robert Erickson
    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
    I guess that twenty or thirty years too late isn't bad by government standards.
  10. Cathy Murphy
    Thursday, February 18th, 2016
    Lower the daily intake allowance for starters
  11. Thursday, February 18th, 2016
    There are several theories being investigated as to the causation of gluten intolerance (a controversial diagnosis) and the more serious and well documented celiac disease. One such theory involves the use of glyphosate as a defoliant on wheat crops approaching harvest under especially wet conditions (defoliants force more uniform and more rapid ripening, and knock down seedy weeds amid the wheat). This could involve existence of residue as well as breakdown products of glyphosate in food products. However, it could also involve changes provoked on the wheat plant, changing the seed characteristics. The science is not in. Beware focus of discussions only on glyphosate residues per se.
  12. AnotherLover
    Thursday, February 18th, 2016
    Hey! I was wondering what such a well-written, non-bloviating, interesting article was doing in Time magazine. Now I know. Thanks for the read. I'm thinking about the farmers and others I've argued with about glyphosate. The gov's guilty demeanor speaks volumes here.
  13. Persephone
    Thursday, February 18th, 2016
    You need to check sugar cane because it is routinely sprayed with Glyphosate prior to harvesting worldwide. It is not only contaminated with Glyphosate but here in Hawaii PVC (poly vinyl Chloride also toxic) tubing for water are all burnt soon after Glyphosate sprayed Sugar is burnt thusly contaminating the entire Island of Maui with Cane Smoke! It is chemically changed once burnt so the carcinogenic effect is tremendously dangerous!
  14. William Pilacinski
    Thursday, February 18th, 2016
    This is $5 million that will NOT be spent on REAL food safety issues, like E coli contamination. Remember Chipotle who bragged about their non-GMO program while ignoring E coli? What other instances of microbial contamination will not be discovered or discovered too late because of lack of funds?
  15. Scott
    Thursday, February 18th, 2016
    "long-standing safety profile of this vital tool (Biocide) used safely and effectively by farmers, landowners and homeowners around the world.”
  16. Tom
    Friday, February 19th, 2016
    Pretty sure along time ago the WHO says glyphosate and it's breakdown products are non carcinogenic. Peer reviewed journal article from back in 2000. http://www.msal.gob.ar/agroquimicos/pdf/Williams-et-al-2000.pdf have a read for yourself.
  17. Marcia Riquelme
    Monday, February 22nd, 2016
    Would like to know if residue testing is available near me.
  18. katherine weesner
    Monday, February 22nd, 2016
    After 6 months of my gastroenterologist and myself trying to figure out why I lost 25 pounds in 2 months and my villi in my small intestine are damaged and I have numerous other symptoms of Celiac Disease (but no gene that permits it); it has been decided that I should not eat GMO foods because they are sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate which apparently causes many health problems. I also have suddenly acquired chronic kidney disease which is another health problem associated with glyphosate. I am very disheartened by these circumstances and wish that glyphosate were banned as well as foods be labeled to whether they are GMO or not. I had better not eat GMO foods as they are sprayed with herbicide glyphosate.
  19. Kim
    Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016
    We have to check the combination with glyphosat and the rest that it is mix with. The WHO - Cancer Research Team -IARC did that and concluded that it is cancer related. The EFSA researched only glyphosat and concluded it wasnt cancer related..
  20. Dale Siar
    Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016
    To say the start up cost will be $5 Million, NOTHING that is, we are paying 1/2 Billion to house 60 inmates in Cuba.

    I hope I can count on the results, and that independent test are also displayed together.
  21. Shamalam
    Wednesday, February 24th, 2016
    I dont trust them as far as they can throw a nickle from that 5 million. There should be two seperate studies with two seperate entities performing it. We know its there, they know its there, but if they have control I do not trust the results.
  22. Jon
    Saturday, February 27th, 2016
    I do NOT trust the FDA and we need other testing facilities, especially outside the U.S. to do this testing as well. We can compare the results to see how honest the FDA will be. The FDA is corrupt, and being run by ex-Monsanto employees with an agenda to promote GMO'S. We simply cannot just jump for joy that the FDA is doing this!

    The FDA should have done this long ago and actually tested the GMO'S and required independent lab testing, but being the corrupt organization it is and it's ties to BIG agriculture and BIG PHARMA, we cannot trust their results alone!
  23. Jane Peters
    Monday, February 29th, 2016
    After they find it I hope they get it out.
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