Headline after headline in 2017 debated the safety of the key ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide RoundUp – making it a household word for many consumers and stoking their fears that it could be dangerous and should be avoided.
On one side of the argument was California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which effectively listed glyphosate as a carcinogen in July, meaning that manufacturers will need to warn consumers of the risk if it is or could be present in their products under the state’s arduous Prop 65 legislation from summer 2018 (although a safe harbor level has yet to be confirmed).
The decision didn’t come as a surprise to many given the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed the herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015 - a decision that baffled Monsanto, given that the IARC's findings were inconsistent with those of two other WHO programs – the Core Assessment Group and the International Program on Chemical Safety – which have both concluded glyphosate is not carcinogenic.
A November 2015 report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also found that "glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans," while a December 2017 draft risk assessment from the US Environmental Protection Agency concluded that glyphosate “is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
Within a month of the OEHHA's decision, however, glyphosate was back in the news for being present in trace amount in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream – a revelation that put the popular ice cream maker in the awkward position of defending the presence of the “pervasive chemical,” which in many ways runs counter to everything the brand says it stands for, given its high-profile commitments to non-GMO ingredients.
Less than six months later, glyphosate was in the news again when the European Union voted to allow continued use of the herbicide for five years – a decision that seemed to make no one happy. Many said the chemical should not have been reauthorized and Monsanto said it should have been reauthorized for longer.
To help companies avoid PR debacles, run afoul of Prop 65 or lose sales due to consumer concerns about glyphosate, two certifications emerged in the back half of 2017 to reassure consumers and protect companies: The Detox Project and BioChecked.
Based on the fast growth these two companies have already seen, consumer research firm SPINS predicts that glyphosate-free and glyphosate-residue-free language on labels as well as the adoption of third-party verification by brands will grow in 2018.
This episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast explores the actual prevalence of glyphosate in finished goods as well as what it takes to become certified and the potential long- and short-term impact of that certification.
Prior to the soft launch of The Detox Project’s Glyphosate Residue Free certification last May, the startup’s director Henry Rowlands says his team confidentially tested between 1,000 and 2,000 finished products to better understand the extent of the contamination.
He says what he found is alarming, but not surprising given the widespread use of the herbicide in America.
“I would say that there are different sectors as to where it is prevalent and where it isn’t. It is very prevalent in all products that are conventionally produced or using GM crops,” Rowlands said. He further explained, “the levels are mainly in the range of between one part per billion and probably 1,500 parts per billion. Some would say those are low levels, however, in reality, there hasn’t been any regulatory testing done at those levels to see if they are safe for human consumption.”
Given the extent of glyphosate in finished products paired with growing consumer demand for full transparency about what is in the foods and beverages they consume, Rowlands said industry response to The Detox Project’s certification has been “huge” with more than 300 brands engaging the startup since May.
“To begin with, in the first couple of months, it was mainly small brands, small supplement brands, honey brands, baby food, and probably the odd dairy brand to begin with. And since then, we have seen a large interest and, especially in the last couple of months, from much bigger organic companies and a few non-GMO certified companies as well.”
Scott Prentice, the executive of BioChecked, which launched a non-glyphosate certification in 2015, says he has seen similar interest from a wide scope of companies and he currently works with about 100 companies to provide certifications for non-glyphosate, non-GMO, grass-fed and a few others.
Both companies have similar systems of certifying finished products by urging companies to reach out to a third-party lab that will test the products down to the lowest level of detection possible and then sending the results to BioChecked or The Detox Project if no residue was found. Products that qualify for the certification then must be regularly re-tested in order to maintain the seal.
Of the companies that apply for the seal from The Detox Project about 80-90% pass the standards, the others must go back through their supply chain to find the source of the glyphosate and look for alternative suppliers before they try again.
Managing costs and certifications
In order to encourage as many companies as possible to apply and earn the certification, Rowlands says The Detox Project tries to keep the cost for verification low.
“Compared with other certifications, it is a very, very small investment,” that will cost about $199 to test each sample and then $1,472 annually for all SKUs that qualify under a certified brand, Rowlands said.
Given glyphosate’s connection to genetically modified and conventional foods, one might wonder why existing certifications for non-GMO and organic were not sufficient to ally consumer fears about the herbicide’s presence.
Rowlands explains that, while both of those certifications offer significant value, they don’t provide the same assurance as testing specifically for the herbicide, which could be transferred through cross-contamination.
“Non-GMO doesn’t really have bearing on whether a product has pesticides in it or not,” he said.
Organic, on the other hand, does, but Rowland says existing testing for the certification is woefully inadequate when it comes to glyphosate.
“Hopefully, the certification will push USDA organic in the correct direction, which is to include glyphosate fully,” along with other pesticides, in testing up and down the supply chain, he said.
Recognizing that there are a lot of certifications out there currently, all of which may seem “essential,” Prentice says he is working on a way to streamline the number of seals that crowd products’ labels.
Certification could provide legal protection
Whether or not companies choose to display the seal on their packaging and website, Rowlands says going through the process and becoming certified could protect brands from consumer lawsuits, such as those filed against General Mills, Post Foods and PepsiCo’s Quaker on the grounds that no reasonable consumer would expect products labeled 100% natural to contain trace amounts of a synthetic pesticide.
Looking forward, both Rowlands and Prentice predict that as certification for glyphosate residue becomes more common place, companies will start to test for other heavy metals and chemicals that could pose health hazards. The end result, they say, will be healthier food supply and a healthier population.