Last week, lawyers in New York and California initiated a class-action lawsuit against Quaker Oats for selling oatmeal labeled "100% natural," even though it contains trace amounts of the not-so-natural chemical glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide known as Roundup. Labeling aside, the suit brings up an even bigger question: How freaked out should we be about chemicals in our breakfast?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared glyphosate "a probable human carcinogen" last year, heightening consumer concern about the use of the herbicide on our foods. Glyphosate is mixed with other chemical ingredients to make Roundup (which is manufactured by the biotech company Monsanto), and is widely used on food crops to kill unwanted weeds in agricultural production; it's also frequently used in home gardens. The IARC report pointed to an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in humans who are occupationally exposed to the herbicide, and noted the prevalence of rare liver and kidney tumors in animals exposed to glyphosate.
Glyphosate is the most commonly used broad-spectrum herbicide in the world. Its use rose globally from 112.6 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion pounds in 2014. This spike coincides with the introduction of "Roundup Ready" GMO crops, which are genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide. In addition, even some non-GMO crops, including wheat, oats, barley, and beans, are sprayed with glyphosate in a practice called desiccation, which dries the crops and speeds ripening. This has prompted concern about increased residues—as has the fact that, in 2013, the EPA raised the allowable limit for glyphosate residue in food. This means there's a good chance glyphosate residue lurks in both GMO and non-GMO foods. (The use of glyphosate, as well as many other pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, are prohibited in organic farming, so certified-organic foods are likely free of these residues.)
Testing done on a sample of Quaker Oats Quick 1-Minute Oats at an independent lab and paid for by the Richman Law Group, which is representing plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, found levels of glyphosate at 1.18 parts per million. The EPA currently allows up to 30 parts per million in cereal grains. A spokesperson for Quaker Oats wrote in an emailed statement to VICE, "Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are trace amounts and significantly below any limits which have been set by the EPA as safe for human consumption." Echoing that sentiment, an EPA spokesperson, also in an emailed statement to VICE, wrote, "In setting tolerances for pesticide residues on various foods, EPA ensures that there will be a reasonable certainty of no harm to people when they consume food containing residues resulting from use of the pesticide."
In other words, both Quaker Oats and the EPA take the position that you should not worry about glyphosate residue in your oatmeal or elsewhere because the levels are below the threshold the EPA has set for "no harm."
Researchers cannot ethically test the effects of glyphosate in a randomized controlled experiment on humans, so instead they have to rely on animal studies as well as large-scale observational studies, in which they make associations (for instance, between farm workers with occupational exposure to glyphosate and increases in lymphoma). And given the findings so far, scientists who study environmental chemicals strongly disagree with the idea that low levels of glyphosate are harmless. Fourteen of these experts recently published a consensus statement expressing concern that the herbicide may be an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC), which means it has the potential to be biologically active even in extremely low doses. (Despite this, the EPA does not consider glyphosate to be an EDC.) Thousands of separate studies on EDCs have shown that low-level exposure could have detrimental health effects—including an increased risk for certain cancers, infertility, obesity, diabetes, and developmental problems. This suggests that even trace amounts of chemicals like glyphosate found in oats or other foods could be carcinogenic or disruptive to other important biological functions. "Hormones themselves are active at parts per trillion and parts per billion levels [in our bodies]," John Peterson Myers, chief scientist at the research and policy nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences, told VICE. "In the real world of biology, those levels have huge effects. Hormone-disrupting chemicals can also be biologically powerful at those doses."
Studies have shown that glyphosate may interfere with fetal development and cause birth defects, and while much is still unknown, emerging work in rodent models shows that it has effects on male reproductive development. The endocrine system is exquisitely sensitive to very low dosages of EDCs, Andrea Gore, professor and Vacek Chair of pharmacology at the University of Texas, told VICE, and this is especially true when it comes to developing fetuses, infants, and children. "Small fluctuations from the norm can change developmental processes and lead to a dysfunction at the time of exposure, or sometimes, many years after exposure," she said.
Given the research on endocrine disruption, the levels allowed by the EPA are too high, and have no basis in science, Bruce Blumberg, professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at UC Irvine, told VICE. "This is a political decision rather than one based on reasonable, peer-reviewed science." Blumberg is especially concerned about desiccation, which could mean there are potentially even greater amounts of glyphosate residue on our foods than previously accounted for. "Glyphosate and other herbicides were never intended to be used [as desiccants], and I am truly astonished that the EPA allows it absent a showing of how much glyphosate or other herbicides are present on the final product."
Another concern is that Roundup is actually a mixture of glyphosate and other potentially harmful chemicals—a combination that has never been tested. Tests are performed on glyphosate alone, a fact several scientists VICE spoke to pointed to as being a major and often overlooked concern.
"The actual product used is a mixture of chemicals, combined to increase the effectiveness of the active ingredient," Myers said. "The actual product mixture is never tested in regulatory testing. Never—even though that is what people are exposed to."
The widespread use of Roundup means there are potentially many food products—some carrying an "all-natural" label on their packaging—that also contain glyphosate residue. But consumers would have no way of knowing: Despite having a set limit for the herbicide residue in food, and despite the fact that it was introduced to our food system in 1974, the FDA has never monitored levels of glyphosate in food.
But in February of this year, the agency announced that it would begin monitoring levels in soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs. Notably absent from this list is the food in question in the lawsuit: oats. The FDA would not provide any further information about this when contacted by VICE, but a spokesperson said the agency has recently developed "streamlined methods for testing glyphosate."
There doesn't seem to be any disagreement about the presence of glyphosate in our oatmeal; Quaker Oats and the EPA admit it's there. It's likely in myriad other food products as well. And that's the deeper relevance of this lawsuit: It points to the fact that so much is unknown or undisclosed about what actually ends up in our food. Where regulatory agencies have dragged their feet, and where food manufacturers continue to make dubious claims on labels, consumers are taking matters into their own hands with class-action lawsuits—Kim Richman of Richman Law group, for instance, has also filed class action lawsuits in regard to the presence of trans fats and GMOs in foods.
R. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies endocrine disruptors, said that there are several examples of how the government has failed to protect the consumer when it comes to environmental chemical exposure. He points to flame retardants and chemicals called PCBs. "We now know we exposed pregnant women and kids to these chemicals, which affected brain development—we have heard this story over and over again," Zoeller told VICE. "The government is using a strategy that hasn't protected people."
Everyone can agree that more research in this area is necessary; the EPA is currently reviewing last year's IARC findings. The real question is, will glyphosate prove to be another notorious environmental chemical that we'll later learn harms human health? And if that's even a possibility, how shall we hedge our bets in the meantime?
Kristin Wartman Lawless is writing her first book, Formerly Known As Food, a critical look at how the industrial food system is changing our minds, bodies, and culture. It will be published by St. Martin's Press. She has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Newsweek, among many other publications. Follow her on Twitter.
UPDATE 5/12/16: An earlier version of this story referred to a report from the WHO. The report was in fact from the IARC, which is a part of the WHO.
UPDATE 5/12/16: An earlier version of this story failed to mention that the EPA does not consider glyphosate to be an EDC, and implied that glyphosate is synonymous with Roundup. It is in fact the primary ingredient in Roundup.