SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- On December 13th, 2016, a panel of scientific experts will begin a 4-day meeting to evaluate new findings about a controversial weed killer. At the heart of their review: whether this chemical causes cancer in humans.
Its use has grown in California and the world, but you won't know anytime soon if any residue is found on your produce.
"I'm confused, surprised, and really disappointed," said North Bay resident Debbie Friedman.
Friedman told KPIX 5 she buys organic for lots of reasons, and said here's another: a recent report found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not routinely test produce for the presence of a most widely used weed killer in the world: glyphosate.
"I mean, that's what we're paying taxes for is to make sure our food is safe," exclaimed Friedman.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup. Annual use of the chemical has soared in the past two decades with nearly one and half billion pounds applied to crops and gardens worldwide.
"It's used by farmers and homeowners alike," said John Neumann, a director at the Government Accountability Office which provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for the United States Congress.
Use of glyphosate in California had jumped dramatically, primarily in the Central Valley. While the FDA routinely looks for pesticide residue on food, glyphosate is not included on the list.
"We learned through our review that the FDA was not monitoring the pesticide residues for glyphosate and that was a little surprising because it's so commonly used," said Neumann.
The reason? "The FDA cited the cost of testing for glyphosate," said Neumann.
In a report, the GAO rebuked the FDA for failing to test for glyphosate and for not disclosing that fact to the public.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set limits on the amount that can remain on or in food.
"We found that there are over 170 different fruits and vegetables that are cleared for using glyphosate so there could be residues on any of those as well," explained Neumann.
That concerns Bay Area pediatrician Dr. Michelle Perro. "To not test for the most commonly used pesticide is - - what are we doing?," said Perro.
Since it was approved in 1974, the weed killer has been regarded as safe. But last year, cancer experts with the World Health Organization classified the chemical as probably carcinogenic to humans.
Not everyone agrees. Scientists at Monsanto take strong issue with the World Health Organization's report. "I can tell you glyphosate is safe," stated Monsanto toxicologist Donna Farmer.
"The data that they look at, they cherry pick it and then they interpret some of the studies completely different than the researchers that actually did it," explained Farmer.
The EPA just released its new review of the pesticide. Staff scientists with the agency concluded that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. An expert panel is now set to review the findings.
In the meantime, the FDA started testing for glyphosate, but only in four commodities. eggs, milk, soybeans, and corn. So far, the weed killer is not found in eggs or milk. But it was detected in soybeans and corn at allowable levels.
The news is not so sweet for honey. In a separate report, an FDA scientist found glyphosate in several unnamed brands of American honey. Glyphosate is not registered to be used on beehives. Experts believe the bees could have introduced it. The researcher also found the weed killer's presence in unnamed samples of infant oat cereal.
As to whether the FDA plans to include glyphosate in its regular monitoring of all produce, at this point, no one knows.
GAO's Neumann said he believes it should. "Consumers will want to have this information so they can know whether or not their food supply is safe," he said.
Next year, a federal court in San Francisco is poised to hear a major lawsuit alleging this weed killer is causing a potentially lethal blood cancer.
The expert panel meeting mid-December to evaluate the EPA's findings is expected to issue its review, and then the agency will deliver its new risk assessment of glyphosate sometime in the future.
- Trends In Glyphosate Use in the United States and Globally
- GAO REPORT on Pesticide Residue Monitoring Programs
- International Agency for Research on Cancer - World Health Organization
- Scientific Advisory Panel Meeting on Cancer Potential of Glyphosate (rescheduled meeting)
- Monsanto Glyphosate Safety Paper
- FDA Testing of 4 Commodities
- Independent FDA Specialist Testing for Glyphosate in Unnamed Brands of Honey and Oat Cereals
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