Alleged contamination of breakfast cereals and bars: Senator accuses FDA of withholding information

By Gill Hyslop contact

- Last updated on GMT

A report published by the EWG alleges a swathe of oat-based breakfast cereals and snack bars contain a carcinogenic chemical weed killer. Pic: ©GettyImages/ajr_images
A report published by the EWG alleges a swathe of oat-based breakfast cereals and snack bars contain a carcinogenic chemical weed killer. Pic: ©GettyImages/ajr_images

Related tags: Monsanto, weed killer, contamination, Roundup, Environmental working group, Food and drug administration

Following allegations last week that millions of American children are being exposed to a suspected carcinogen through a raft of popular oat-based foods, New York Senator Chuck Schumer has now accused the FDA of withholding information on a weed killer produced by Monsanto.

He claims the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had the Monsanto-produced glyphosate called Roundup on its radar for at least two years.

Last week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) caused a media storm after publishing a report alleging that numerous popular breakfast cereals, granolas and snack bars contain high levels of glyphosate, the active ingredient in certain weed killers, including Monsanto’s Roundup, which has been linked to cancer.

In tests, Eurofins Analytical Laboratories claimed to have found glyphosate in 43 of the 45 samples of products. More than two thirds of the samples had glyphosate levels above what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health with an adequate margin of safety.

Study results

According to EWG, Quaker’s Old Fashioned Oats was found to have 1,300 parts per billion (ppb) of glyphosate, the greatest amount found within the 45 products tested.

Three samples of Cheerios had glyphosate levels ranging from 470 ppb to 530 ppb.

Twelve of the food samples had levels of glyphosate lower than EWG’s health benchmark, ranging from 10 ppb to 120 ppb.

Only two samples had no detectable glyphosate.

“It is very troubling that cereals children like to eat contain glyphosate,”​ said Prof Alexis Temkin, EWG toxicologist and author of the report.

“Parents shouldn’t worry about whether feeding their children heathy oat foods will also expose them to a chemical linked to cancer. The government must take steps to protect our most vulnerable populations.”

Click here for the full study.

Approximately one-third of the 16 samples made with organically grown oats also had glyphosate, all at levels below EWG’s health benchmark. Glyphosate can infiltrate organic oats by drifting from nearby farm fields or cross-contamination in a processing facility that also handles non-organic foods.

According to EWG, Americans routinely ingest glyphosate in their diet, as annually, more than 250 million pounds of the herbicide is sprayed on crops. Although most of it is flushed out of the body, it is the long-term exposure the organization has noted that could have deleterious effects.

“Think about eating popular foods such as oatmeal every day, or almost every day – that’s when, according to scientific assessments, such amounts of glyphosate might pose health harm,” ​Prof Olga Naidenko, EWG’s senior science advisor for children’s health told BakeryandSnacks.

EWG’s study comes out just as Round Up found itself at the wrong end of a landmark lawsuit. Last week, a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289m to a school groundskeeper who claimed Roundup gave him lymphoma.

The case is purportedly the first of a long list of about 4,000 people looking to sue the weed and seed maker for similar allegations.

Monsanto, which merged with German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG earlier this year, said it plans to appeal the court’s decision.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has denied that glyphosate may increase the risk of cancer, however, in light of the findings and the recent Monsanto trial, the EWG is calling on the government agency to review its evidence.

It has also launched a consumer petition to press companies to eliminate glyphosate from food.

“Environmental groups across the US and in other countries have been calling for the phase out of glyphosate. Such a phase out might not happen overnight, so removing the uses of glyphosate that contribute the heaviest ‘share’ of this herbicide in American’s diet is our top priority,”​ said EWG president Ken Cook.

Industry reaction

A spokesperson for Quaker Oats told BakeryandSnacks that – despite EWG president Ken Cook’s allegation of the apparent lack of reaction from some of the producers concerned – it would be “happy to be part of the discussion and are interested in collaborating with industry peers, regulators and other interested parties on glyphosate.

Methodology

“EWG’s view is that chemicals linked to cancer do not belong in children’s food,” ​said Prof Naidenko.

“At the same time, it is helpful to have a benchmark for comparison of different concentration. Using a cancer risk assessment for glyphosate developed by California state scientists, and including additional safety factors, EWG calculated such a health benchmark, expressed in terms of total amount of glyphosate that a child might ingest a day.”

For the study,​ the scientists tested 2oz or 60g of product (the estimated amount that people are likely to eat at one time) – roughly, two cups of Cheerios or ¾ cup of Quaker’s Old Fashioned Oats.

EWG’s health benchmark for glyphosate is 0.01mg per day, so should this full amount be present in a single portion, that would be a concentration of 160 parts per billion (ppb).

“This might not seem like much – but we are talking about the risks of lifetime exposure to toxic herbicides, and these toxic amounts add up if someone has it every day,”​ added Naidenko.

The products sampled were purchased in Washington DC, Boulder, Colorado, and San Francisco.

“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.”

The cereal giant told this site the oats its uses are put through a rigorous process that thoroughly cleanses them (de-hulled, cleaned, roasted and flaked).

“Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are significantly below any limits and well within compliance of the safety standards set by the EPA and the European Commission as safe for human consumption.”

General Mills responded that its products “without question” ​meet regulatory safety levels.

“The EPA has researched this issue and has set rules that we follow as do farmers who grow crops including wheat and oats. We continue to work closely with farmers, our suppliers and conservation organizations to minimize the use of pesticides on the crops and ingredients we use in our foods,”​ said a company spokesperson.

Danielle Schumann, communications lead at Target, said the retailer requires all of its vendors and suppliers to follow all legal and regulatory requirements for the products it sells.

“We take all food safety issues seriously, are aware of the claims raised by EWG and will share them with our supplier for further review,” ​she told us.

Kellogg Media Relations insists its foods are safe.

“Providing safe, high-quality foods is one of the ways we earn the trust of millions of people around the world. The EPA sets strict standards for safe levels of these agricultural residues and the ingredients we purchase from suppliers for our foods fall under these limits,”​ a spokesperson told this site.

Back to Nature said it was aware of the recent reports about “trace residue”​ of glyphosate that “may remain”​ in certain crops, including oats.

“At Back to Nature, we strive for excellence throughout the supply chain and to ensure that our products adhere to safety standards established by governing bodies, including the FDA and EPA.  Based on the EPA’s own research of glyphosate and established regulations, Back to Nature products easily satisfy those standards and are safe for families to enjoy.”

BakeryandSnacks had not received comment from Monsanto or Umpqua Oats before publishing.

Legal does not mean safe

In his latest statement, Cook said, “Our view is that the government standards set by the EPA pose real health risks to Americans ­– particularly children, who are more sensitive to the effects of toxic chemicals than adults.

“Just because a pesticide level is legal in food doesn’t mean that level is safe.”

Yesterday, Senator Schumer demanded the FDA release what it has found in its investigations of the chemical.

“I’m here today to ask them to provide us all with an update on their work so that concerned parents and consumers can get the answers they seek,”​ he said.

Late last week, General Mills was hit with a putative national class action by a South Florida resident who alleged the company failed in its duty to disclose the presence of a possibly carcinogenic chemical weedkiller in its Cheerios cereal products. This is the second time the company has been targeted with class action lawsuits surrounding the alleged contamination of its products with glysophate.

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