"Five years ago, Thrive Market became the first national retailer to go entirely non-GMO in our food catalog due to the health and environmental risks of Roundup resistant crops,” said CEO Nick Green.
“Today, we're proud to go one step further by supporting a new gold standard to ensure that our members and our planet are safe from glyphosate contamination.”
So what does this mean in practice, and will Thrive require all suppliers to get certified as free of glyphosate (a popular herbicide used with GM crops but also sprayed on some conventional crops as a drying agent/desiccant)?
Jeremiah McElwee, SVP merchandising and product development at Thrive Market, told FoodNavigator-USA: "We are in constant dialogue with our branded product suppliers on a variety of topics. As you know, we lean heavily toward USDA Organic certified products [on which glyphosate is not permitted as a herbicide or a desiccant] so the topic of glyphosate residue-free certification is only recently becoming a hot button topic.
"That said, the short answer is 'yes,' we are asking branded suppliers to verify their glyphosate-free status where applicable."
No ultimatums have been issued (yet)
Pressed on what "where applicable" meant, and whether suppliers had been given a deadline to get products certified, he added: "We haven’t gotten that far just yet. It's very early on in the partnership with The Detox Project. So no ultimatums have been set with suppliers/brands at this time.
"For now, it is evaluated on a case by case basis, based on risk of contamination. But again, since we are all Non-GMO (food) with a heavy focus on USDA Organic, we tend to have less inherent risk than conventional retailers. This is just raising the bar further and providing peace of mind for mindful consumers."
He added: "Expect this to evolve into a more formal position as we get into the partnership more and as the value gains more traction. Although, obviously, we hope that we see less glyphosate residue as a trend."
Asked whether Thrive Market's private label products would also go through the certification process, he said: "That is a long term goal, yes. We are already testing some products as part of normal course of doing business and we often require additional 3rd party testing protocols if we believe there is inherent risk above and beyond what Organic certification or Non-GMO verification provides."
Glyphosate as a desiccant (drying agent)
The Detox Project – which launched in 2017 and has since certified 900+ products from 40+ brands from Oatly to Foodstirs as ‘glyphosate residue free’ – has been overwhelmed by industry inquiries following a well-publicized report from the EWG on glyphosate in oat products, a high-profile ruling requiring Monsanto to pay $289m in damages to a man who alleged its glyphosate-based herbicide caused his cancer, and a flurry of lawsuits vs big food brands over glyphosate residues.
Glyphosate is best-known as a herbicide (weed killer) used on crops genetically engineered to be resistant to it (eg. soy, corn, canola).
However, its presence in breakfast cereals and other products made from oats, wheat, and other conventional (Non GM) crops is due to a steady rise in its application as a pre-harvest desiccant (drying agent), especially in the northern regions of the Great Plains and the grain belt of Midwestern and western Canada, where cold, wet weather comes early.
And this is an important fact when addressing how to reduce or eliminate exposure, said The Detox Project director Henry Rowlands, because a lot of people don’t realize that avoiding glyphosate is not simply a question of going Non-GMO, for example, as farmers growing Non-GMO/conventional crops may use glyphosate as a desiccant, typically one or two weeks before harvest.
"Some companies and some members of the public do assume that Non-GMO certified means that a product does not contain glyphosate, however, a wide range of Non-GMO crops are sprayed with glyphosate as a desiccant and thus glyphosate often ends up in Non-GMO certified foods and supplement.
"These crops include: Cereals/grains such as barley, oats, rice, sorghum (millet), and wheat, maize (corn), cotton, oilseeds such as canola, linseed, rapeseed, safflower, sunflower, and soy, sugarcane, flax, mustard, legumes including beans (common, fava, garbanzos), lentils, peas, soybeans, potatoes, and sunflower."
'Everyone seems to have suddenly changed their tune'
If food manufacturers want to source oats or other Non-GM crops without glyphosate residues, said Rowlands, they need to send a message along the supply chain that they don’t want farmers to use it as a drying agent (there are other ways to dry crops), and that message is starting to get through.
"From full support for desiccation only two years ago, everyone seems to have suddenly changed their tune. This is purely because some of the big CPG companies and also many smaller brands are actually signing contracts with their supply chains to stop the practice; they simply don't want to have the liability of finding glyphosate and other pesticides in their products.
"This is what we have been advising brands to do behind the scenes and it has already caused a large drop in the percentage of desiccated crops this year according to farming groups. This is very important as desiccation is the main reason glyphosate and some other chemical herbicides are entering food and supplement products."
Should consumers worry about trace levels of glyphosate?
But are trace levels of glyphosate something consumers should be concerned about, or are certification schemes such as The Detox Project just cynical attempts to make a buck by exploiting consumer fears over microscopic amounts of a substance regulators insist is safe when used as advised?
For brands sued over trace levels of glyphosate in packaged foods, it certainly feels like the latter, Bigelow president and CEO Cindi Bigelow told FoodNavigator-USA in 2017, after being at the receiving end of an “irresponsible” and “scaremongering” lawsuit she said provided no context, and failed to explain that the levels at issue were microscopic.
That said, food brands looking to meet consumer demand for ‘clean’ food would be well advised to at least try to reduce or eliminate pesticide residues and environmental and process contaminants from their wares if they can, even if the jury is still out on their long-term health impacts, argued Greg Fleishman, co-founder at organic baking mix brand Foodstirs (which has had several products certified glyphosate residue free).
FDA glyphosate testing
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established tolerances for glyphosate on a wide range of crops, ranging from 0.1 to 310 ppm.
A 2018 analysis by the FDA revealed glyphosate in 63.1% of corn samples and 67% of soybean samples, with corn and soy samples well below legal thresholds of 0.1ppm (100ppb) for corn/pop/grain and 20ppm (20,000ppb) for soybeans (the average detectible level of glyphosate for corn was 40 ppb (0.04ppm) and 790ppb (0.79ppm) for soybeans).
Given that testing from the Environmental Working Group and The Detox Project has revealed the presence of glyphosate in everything from breakfast cereals to granola bars due to its application as a pre-harvest desiccant, however, the FDA needs to spread its net wider, argued Rowlands.
“The FDA should be concentrating on testing all crops/ingredients that are desiccated using glyphosate, these include wheat, oats, lentils, peas, soybeans, corn, flax, rye, triticale, buckwheat, millet, canola, sugar beets, sunflowers and potatoes.”
Glyphosate and safety
A 2015 statement from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (part of the World Health Organization) that glyphosate was ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ has given ammo to plaintiff’s attorneys going after Monsanto (which makes glyphosate/RoundUp), as well as food companies utilizing ingredients from crops sprayed with the herbicide.
However, a November 2015 report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that "glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential."
A May 2016 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' (FAO's) Panel of Experts on Pesticide Residues in Food and the Environment, and the World Health Organization (WHO) Core Assessment Group on Pesticide Residues found that "glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic at anticipated dietary exposures."
EFSA further concluded in 2017 that, "The current assessment concluded that the weight of evidence indicates that glyphosate does not have endocrine disrupting properties through oestrogen, androgen, thyroid or steroidogenesis mode of action based on a comprehensive database available in the toxicology area. The available ecotox studies did not contradict this conclusion."
In its December 2017 draft risk assessment the EPA concluded that glyphosate “is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
**To be certified Glyphosate Residue Free by The Detox Project, foods and supplements must have no glyphosate residues down to US government-recognized limits of detection for food, commodity and supplement samples (usually 0.01 ppm), and lower levels than default government Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) in the EU.
Why is glyphosate found in some organic foods?
While glyphosate is not permitted on organic crops as a weed killer or drying agent, it has crept into some organic products (a third of organic oat-based products tested by the Environmental Working Group last summer had trace levels of glyphosate) likely through a combination of factors, claims The Detox Project director Henry Rowlands, who notes that under USDA organic certification standards, firms are not required to test finished products for pesticide residues.
"It is unusual for organic certified foods to contain glyphosate. There are some problem supply chains in organic though, such as pea protein, oats, wheat and spices. I call them 'problem' supply chains because it seems that there is a mixture of malpractice and poor controls within some organic supplies of these crops, especially in the US."
What certifications are parents looking for on food labels?
Find out at FoodNavigator-USA's FOOD FOR KIDS summit in Chicago November 18-20, which will feature a fireside chat with Jackie Bowen, executive director at The Clean Label Project.