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Consumer Group Sues EPA for Documents Related to FDA's Testing of Food for Herbicide Residues

Thanks to internal emails uncovered by Carey Gillam, writing for The Guardian, the public knows that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found glyphosate residues in a variety of foods. In fact, the agency had trouble finding any foods that didn’t test positive for traces of the chemical, best-known as the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

It’s the FDA’s job to conduct residue testing on food. It’s the responsibility of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate pesticide residues on food. It stands to reason then that the two taxpayer-funded agencies would communicate closely with each other on any food testing involving glyphosate or any other pesticide.

That’s why U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) has filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with both agencies, and shared the findings in a series of stories by Gillam, a former Reuters reporter who now directs research for the consumer advocacy group.

The FDA has produced at least some of the documents requested by USRTK. But the EPA has dodged group’s effort to learn more about this matter of public policy and public health.

The EPA has failed to produce documents requested in a July 2016 FOIA request, and also had failed to respond to a February 2017 request for related industry communications. That failure led Gillam and USRTK to sue the EPA last month.

If the public already knows that FDA tests found glyphosate, and USRTK already has related FDA documents, why bother suing the EPA for that agency’s related communications?

“When you use FOIA, it’s like getting pieces of a puzzle,” said Gillam, explaining that the FDA and other federal agencies routinely redact, or black out, large sections of the documents they turn over. “To put that puzzle together, to get the whole picture, often  requires requesting records from multiple sources. We still may not get everything, as it seems the agencies are increasingly embracing secrecy, but it’s our responsibility to try to get to the truth.”

Gillam, author of the award winning book, “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science,” told Organic Consumers Association that USRTK isn’t seeking the EPA documents because the group has a preconceived notion that the EPA has done something wrong or illegal. But she said she finds it curious that the FDA communications USRTK has received so far contain emails from the FDA to the EPA, but gaps where one would expect to see responses from the EPA back to the FDA.

Gillam said she is particularly interested in any communications with or regarding industry influence, and communications that pertain to any FDA testing that finds samples with residue levels that exceed the EPA’s maximum residue limits (MRLs). (A recent study suggests there are no “safe” limits of glyphosate for human consumption, but for now, the EPA maintains such limits exist).

"The EPA is supposed to be working on behalf of the public interest, and the public has a right to transparency on issues relevant to public health and our food supply," Gillam said. "The presence of pesticide residues in our food is of growing concern to many health experts. And the fact that our regulators have had to reverse themselves on assurances of safety for certain pesticides—telling us they are safe in our food and then later admitting they were wrong—only underscores that concern. We hope to hold the EPA accountable on this and other matters so we can do our small part to keep the public informed."

Did the FDA ever intend to reveal test results?

It was early 2016 when Gillam first discovered and reported that the FDA was starting to test food samples for traces of glyphosate.

To learn more, Gillam and USRTK filed FOIAs with the FDA and in July 2016 with the EPA, seeking any documents and any communications the agency had with FDA, Monsanto and certain other parties related to glyphosate residue testing. In February 2017, USRTK filed a second FOIA request, seeking communications between the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs and representatives of CropLife America, a trade association representing pesticide and herbicide manufacturers and distributors.

The EPA initially acknowledged the request, but has so far failed to provide any update or any records on the test results or related communications outlined in the FOIA request.

Meanwhile, even though the FDA hasn’t gone public with its residue testing results, internal documents obtained by Gillam, writing for The Guardian in April show that the FDA has had difficulty finding any food that doesn’t have some trace of the most widely used herbicide in the world. Glyphosate-based herbicides have been used in food production for more than 40 years.

Earlier articles by Gillam revealed that the FDA had found glyphosate residues in honey and oatmeal products.

The Guardian article features an email, one of many FDA communications about the pervasiveness of glyphosate in America’s food, written by FDA chemist Richard Thompson to his colleagues. The email says that he has “brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount [of glyphosate] in all of them.”

Thompson also wrote that broccoli is the only thing that he has “on hand that does not have glyphosate in it.” The internal FDA email thread is dated January 2017.

When asked about the internal email, the FDA spokesperson reportedly didn’t address the issue, claiming only that the agency did not detect illegal levels of glyphosate in corn, soy, milk or eggs.

California Congressman wants answers, too

Three days before USRTK filed its lawsuit, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) sent a letter to the FDA, saying that he is “concerned by recent public reporting revealing that scientists at the FDA have communicated that they found glyphosate traces in commonplace food items.”

Rep. Lieu wrote:

The differences between levels of glyphosates referenced in The Guardian article and the FDA’s preliminary test results coupled with the EPA IG’s inquire into its own agency’s review of glyphosate indicate to me that the public deserves additional information on the safety of glyphosate in food. As such, I respectfully request answers to the following questions:

• How did the FDA determine which food items to include in its glyphosate testing?

• How would any potential changes to the EPA’s regulations for glyphosate affect the FDA’s testing?

• Do you collaborate with the National Institutes of Health on matters related to glyphosate?

• Does the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s finding that glyphosate may be carcinogenic affect your testing of the pesticide?

• Will you release, or provide to Congress, the preliminary results of the FDA’s glyphosate testing?

• When will the final results for the FDA’s glyphosate testing be completed and made public?

• Do you disagree with any element of The Guardian article reference in this letter? If so, please explain.

With no end to glyphosate in sight, humans remain at risk

It’s unclear how soon Lieu and the American public will get answers to their questions. In the meantime glyphosate continues to wreak havoc on human health.

According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, “cancer is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg” when it comes to the dangers caused by glyphosate exposure. He explains that glyphosate not only causes Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and lung cancer in humans, but it also compromises the shikimate pathway and disrupts the microbiome by acting as an antibiotic.

Moreover, the “gly” in glyphosate refers to glycine, a common amino acid used to make proteins—this confuses your body into substituting glyphosate for glycine and ends up producing damaged proteins. Glyphosate can also cause systemic and metabolic damage.

Unfortunately, it seems that consumers will continue to be left in the dark regarding these harmful effects, as long as biotech giants like Monsanto have a stranglehold on the food system, spoon-feeding scientists, journalists, academics and even the media with questionable studies that support their point of view.

You can reduce your exposure to glyphosate by eating organic food grown without the use of pesticides. Be sure to purchase Grade A organics and not food from "Big Organic" factory farms. Be wary of retail grocery chains that sell organics under their own label, including Aldi’s Simply Nature, Whole Foods 365 Organic, Trader Joe’s, Kroger Simple Truth, Costco and Walmart. Most of these store-brand products are produced by industrial-scale organic producers. Instead, shop at your local natural health food stores or co-op. These businesses make sure they only sell the best-quality organic and regenerative foods.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Ronnie Cummins is OCA’s  international director. OCA is a  major funder of U.S. Right to Know. Keep up-to-date with OCA’s news and alerts by signing up for our newsletter.