The Food and Drug Administration, under public pressure to start testing samples of U.S. food for the presence of a pesticide that has been linked to cancer, has some early findings that are not so sweet.
In examining honey samples from various locations in the United States, the FDA has found fresh evidence that residues of the weed killer called glyphosate can be pervasive - found even in a food that is not produced with the use of glyphosate. All of the samples the FDA tested in a recent examination contained glyphosate residues, and some of the honey showed residue levels double the limit allowed in the European Union, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. There is no legal tolerance level for glyphosate in honey in the United States.
Glyphosate, which is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide, is the most widely used weed killer in the world, and concerns about glyphosate residues in food spiked after the World Health Organization in 2015 said its cancer experts determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Other international scientists have raised concerns about how heavy use of glyphosate is impacting human health and the environment.
Records obtained from the FDA, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, detail a range of revelations about the federal government's efforts to get a handle on these rising concerns. In addition to honey, the records show government residue experts discussing glyphosate found in soybean and wheat samples, "glyphosate controversies," and the belief that there could be "a lot of violation for glyphosate" residues in U.S. crops.
Even though the FDA annually examines foods for residues of many pesticides, it has skipped testing for glyphosate residues for decades. It was only in February of this year that the agency said it would start some glyphosate residues analysis. That came after many independent researchers started conducting their own testing and found glyphosate in an array of food products, including flour, cereal, and oatmeal. The government and Monsanto have maintained that any glyphosate residues in food would be minimal enough to be safe. But critics say without robust testing, glyphosate levels in food are not known. And they say that even trace amounts may be harmful because they are likely consumed so regularly in many foods.
The residue issues are coming into the spotlight at the same time that the EPA is completing a risk assessment to determine if use of this top-selling herbicide should be limited. The agency has scheduled public meetings on the matter Oct. 18-21 in Washington. The EPA's risk assessment report was initially due out in 2015, but still has not been finalized. The agency now says it will be completed in "spring 2017."
In the records released by the FDA, one internal email describes trouble locating honey that doesn't contain glyphosate: "It is difficult to find blank honey that does not contain residue. I collect about 10 samples of honey in the market and they all contain glyphosate," states an FDA researcher. Even "organic mountain honey" contained low concentrations of glyphosate, the FDA documents show.
According to the FDA records, samples tested by FDA chemist Narong Chamkasem showed residue levels at 107 ppb in samples the FDA associated with Louisiana-based Carmichael's Honey; 22 ppb in honey the FDA linked to Leighton's Orange Blossom Honey in Florida and residues at 41 ppb in samples the FDA associated with Iowa-based Sue Bee Honey, which is marketed by a cooperative of American beekeepers as "pure, all-natural" and "America's Honey." Customers "can be assured that Sue Bee Honey is 100% pure, 100% all-natural and 100% American," the Sioux Honey Association states.
In a Jan. 8, 2016 email Chamkasem pointed out to fellow FDA scientists that the EU tolerance level is 50 ppb and there is no amount of glyphosate allowed at all in honey in the United States. But Chris Sack, an FDA chemist who oversees the agency's pesticide residue testing, responded by reassuring Chamkasem and the others that the glyphosate residues discovered are only "technically a violation."
"The bee farmers are not breaking any laws; rather glyphosate is being introduced by the bees," Sack wrote in response. "While the presence of glyphosate in honey is technically a violation, it is not a safety issue."
Sack said the EPA had been "made aware of the problem" and was expected to set tolerance levels for honey. Once tolerance levels are set by EPA - if they are set high enough - the residues would no longer be a violation. When contacted this week, the EPA said there are currently no pending requests to set tolerance levels for glyphosate in honey. But, the agency also said: "there is no dietary risk concern from exposure to glyphosate residues in honey at this time."
Sioux Honey Vice President Bill Huser said glyphosate is commonly used on farm fields frequented by bees, and the pesticide travels back with the bees to the hives where the honey is produced.
"The industry doesn't have any control over environmental impacts like this," Huser said. Most of Sue Bee's honey comes from bees located near clover and alfalfa in the upper Midwest, he said. Beekeepers located in the South would have honeybees close to cotton and soybean fields. Alfalfa, soybeans and cotton are all genetically engineered to be sprayed directly with glyphosate.
The FDA results are not the first to find glyphosate in honey. Sampling done in early 2015 by the scientific research company Abraxis found glyphosate residues in 41 of 69 honey samples with glyphosate levels between 17 and 163 ppb, with the mean average being 64 ppb.
Bee keepers say they are innocent victims who see their honey products contaminated simply because they might be located within a few miles of farms where glyphosate is used.
"I don't understand how I'm supposed to control the level of glyphosate in my honey when I'm not the one using Roundup," one honey company operator said. "It's all around me. It's unfair."
The FDA did not respond to a question about the extent of its communications with Monsanto regarding residue testing, but the records released show that Monsanto has had at least some interaction with the FDA on this issue. In April of this year, Monsanto's international regulatory affairs manager Amelia Jackson-Gheissari emailed FDA asking to set up a time to talk about "enforcement of residue levels in the USA, particularly glyphosate."
The FDA routinely looks for residues of a number of commonly used pesticides but not glyphosate. The look for glyphosate this year is considered a "special assignment" and came after the agency was criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014 for failing to test for glyphosate.
The FDA has not released formal results of its testing plans or the findings, but Sack made a presentation in June to the California Specialty Crops Council that said the agency was analyzing 300 samples of corn; 300 samples of soy; and 120 samples each of milk and eggs. He described some partial results achieved through April that showed glyphosate levels found in 52 samples of corn and 44 samples of soybeans but not above legally allowed levels. The presentation did not mention honey. The presentation also stated that glyphosate testing at the FDA will be expanded to "routine screening."
The USDA also will start testing for glyphosate, but not until next year, according to information the agency gave to the nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides in a meeting in Washington in January. Documents obtained through FOIA show a plan to test in syrups and oils in 2017.
Soybeans and Wheat
Like the FDA, the USDA has dragged its feet on testing. Only one time, in 2011, has the USDA tested for glyphosate residues despite the fact that the agency does widespread testing for residues of other less-used pesticides. In what the USDA called a "special project" the agency tested 300 soybean samples for glyphosate and found more than 90 percent - 271 of the samples - carried the weed killer residues. The agency said then that further testing for glyphosate was "not a high priority" because glyphosate is considered so safe. It also said that while residues levels in some samples came close to the very high levels of glyphosate "tolerance" established by EPA, they did not exceed those levels.
Both the USDA and the FDA have long said it is too expensive and is unnecessary to test for glyphosate residues. Yet the division within the USDA known as the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has been testing wheat for glyphosate residues for years because many foreign buyers have strong concerns about glyphosate residues. GIPSA's testing is part of an "export cargo sampling program," documents obtained from GIPSA show. Those tests showed glyphosate residues detected in more than 40 percent of hundreds of wheat samples examined in fiscal 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. The levels vary, the data shows. GIPSA has also been helping FDA access soybeans to test. In a May 2015 email, GIPSA chemist Gary Hinshaw told an FDA food safety official that "it isn't difficult to find soybeans containing glyphosate." In a December 7, 2015 email from FDA chemist Terry Councell to Lauren Robin, also a chemist and an FDA consumer safety officer, Councell said that glyphosate was present even in processed commodities, though "way below tolerance."
The fact that the government is aware of glyphosate residues in food, but has dragged its feet on testing for so long, frustrates many who are concerned about the pesticide.
"There is no sense of urgency around these exposures that we live with day in and day out," said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.