Do protests make a difference? We think so—here’s a recent case in point.
On August 10, 2017, members of the Asociación de Consumidores Orgánicos (ACO), the Mexico City-based arm of the Organic Consumers Association, participated in our eight-city international protest against Ben & Jerry’s (a subsidiary of London-based Unilever). The protest followed OCA’s announcement that 10 of 11 samples of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tested positive for Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.
The Mexico City “Dump Ben & Jerry’s” protest caught the attention of officials at the Federal Commission for the Protection of Sanitary Risks (Cofepris), an agency of the Ministry of Health of Mexico. The Commission is in charge of preventing and controlling environmental factors potentially harmful to the population, as well as the sanitation and the sanitary control of products and their marketing and labeling.
Cofepris officials, including Ms. Rocío Alatorre Eden-Wynter, Commissioner of Evidence and Risk Management, Dr. Armida Zúñiga, Commissioner of Analysis Control and Coverage Extension, and Jorge Romero J.D., Commissioner for the Promotion of Sanitation, arranged to meet with our ACO team on August 27.
Our team showed up with five questions for Cofepris officials:
- What is the official position of Cofepris on glyphosate?
- What information does Cofepris base its current glyphosate limits on? What studies, if any, are these limits based on?
- Is there an official rule in Mexico? Is Cofepris governed by the Nutritional Value CODEX? Or by what is accepted by the EPA? And if so, under what limits?
- When a product arrives that is labeled non-GMO, does Cofepris verify this? What is the procedure implemented for imported products?
- Why would consumers have to verify products, ingredients and labeling? Is this not the responsibility of the authorities?
The answers provided by Cofepris officials (see below) only partially addressed our team’s concerns. They also confirmed some of our team’s suppositions and suspicions, including the fact that Cofepris (not unlike U.S. government agencies) largely relies on the data submitted by corporations like Monsanto that sell pesticides for determining safety.
Still, because ACO Mexico met with Cofepris, the agency is by law required to direct our concerns to Unilever—which means Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s is now on notice that Mexico consumers know what’s in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. And they want answers.
Here’s how Cofepris answered ACO’s questions:
- Cofepris participates in the CODEX Alimentarius and has harmonized its standards with the U.S. and with other international standards.
- If you ask the official position of Cofepris on glyphosate, the answer is that Cofepris has a position on more than 1,000 pesticides, and these positions are based on the scientific information presented by the corporations and is annexed to the CODEX Alimentarius.
- Cofepris has different registers of allowed levels of glyphosate, established on the basis of three information packets that corporations are required to present: 1) Information about risk to the population; 2) Information on the potential risk to the environment; 3) Information about the biological efficiency of the pesticide on the particular pest.
- All the studies that support the more than 1,500 allowed pesticides contain health data. These records are not public because they contain confidential information protected by the Protection Law.
- Glyphosate is accounted for, like the other 1,000 pesticides, in the official catalog updated in 2016, with the Maximum Limits of Pesticide Residues (LMRP), based on international accords. In the case of this ice cream, the level of glyphosate is well below the limit and it would still require a very high daily intake.
- Cofepris conducts pesticide studies, but not on glyphosate. That is not our area. But here is the protection offered in the revision of this particular case.
- Because of the prolonged and extensive use of pesticides worldwide, it’s probable the chemicals are transmitted from our soils to our food.
- GMOs do not contain glyphosate. The gene of resistance to it, only implies that the amount of glyphosate associated with it is minimum because it already has resistance. To link OGM with glyphosate is a scientific error.
Here’s what the ACO team concluded from the meeting:
- The majority of information provided by Cofepris concerns the production and not the final product, as in the case of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
- There is no certainty regarding the development of testing or studies on glyphosate, or its impact on public health.
- Regarding the consumer concerns that were presented, Cofepris has the duty to conduct a direct study of the brand in order to fulfill its responsibility.
- Cofepris’ mission statement is: “To protect the population from health risks derived from the use and consumption of goods and services, health and medical supplies, as well as exposure to environmental and work factors, sanitation emergencies, and health services rendered through the regulation, control and prevention of sanitary risks.” We believe that the protection, regulation, control and prevention are all diminished every time authorization is given “on the basis of the scientific information provided by the corporations and by annexing to the CODEX and Better Practices.” This is a conflict of interest since it’s those same corporations interested in profiting who provide evidence of the “harmlessness” of their products. Even riskier, since the officials at Cofepris still believe that GMOs are not flooded with pesticides, for pest control as well as a dessicant.
- The authorities in charge of watching over the health of Mexicans do not practice principles of prevention and precaution. They do not raise their norms to a higher standard, and instead, they follow guidelines set under the influence of Big Food and the agrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. Rather than hold corporations accountable for its health-harming products, it’s common for citizens to have to take action and provide proof of potential harm. Cofepris’ claims of impartiality are as real as the benefits of processed foods.
- ACO will submit via Centro Integral de Servicios an application for follow-up through an independent written document. In the written document, there should be mentioned the analytical matrix of methodology used by the laboratory that tested the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Cofepris has 60 days to reply.
- Cofepris, through the Commissioner for the Promotion of Sanitation, Jorge Romero, will provide access to the Official Norms of the LMR, and provide a list of the pesticides that have been recalled by Cofepris.
For more information:
Ercilia Sahores is Political Director for the Asociación de Consumidores Orgánicos.
Francia Gutiérrez is Campaigns Director for the Asociación de Consumidores Orgánicos.