There's a lot of concern these days about what is in our food. It's totally understandable if parents are a little worried, given the headlines we've been seeing in recent weeks. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a call for better food regulation, and there's been a spate of food recalls this summer, for everything from crackers to a cereal linked to Salmonella infections.
And now breakfast cereals, in general, are in the food safety spotlight, not because of Salmonella contamination, but for something that is found in food much more often—glyphosate, an ingredient in Monsanto's weed-killer, Roundup.
The Environmental Working Group (a non-profit funded in part by support from companies like Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farms, Earthbound Farms, Dr. Bronner Soaps, and Beauty Counter) recently released the results of independent laboratory tests it commissioned on breakfast cereals, examining them glyphosate, the chemical that was at the heart of a recent lawsuit in which a California jury found the weed-killer Roundup caused a school groundskeeper's cancer.
What the report found
According to the EWG, 31 out of 45 cereal products tested had higher levels glyphosate than some scientists would like. It's 'some' because regulatory bodies are divided on what level of glyphosate should be considered safe.
California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment suggests a much lower level of exposure than the federal Environmental Protection Agency does, according to the EWG, and while California lists the chemical as "known to cause cancer," the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the substance only a "probable carcinogen." Numerous other national and international agencies have reviewed glyphosate and haven't found it to be a human health hazard.
The EWG says it is though, citing California's classification of the chemical and the recent jury verdict there.
Family favorite cereals like Cheerios, Quaker Dinosaur Egg Instant Oats, Great Value Instant Oats and Quaker Old Fashioned Oats tested too high for the EWG's liking.
But the EWG's safety benchmark for glyphosate levels in cereal is 160 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency's limit is 30 parts per million. The folks at Health did the math, converting the parts per billion to parts per million, and found that "even the highest concentration found in the new EWG report—1,300 ppb, or 1.3 ppm—is still in line with what the FDA announced previously, and still lower than the EPA's tolerable threshold".
As Slate's science editor, Susan Matthews, writes, "the EPA threshold [for glyphosate], which was set in 1993...is 2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (140 milligrams per day for the average adult). That's the reference dose that's considered safe to consume daily throughout a lifetime. None of the foods tested by EWG passes that threshold—they don't even come close."
What the cereal companies have to say
CBS reports Quaker issued a statement saying it "proudly stand[s] by the safety and quality of our Quaker products. Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are significantly below any limits of the safety standards set by the EPA and the European Commission as safe for human consumption," and that General Mills told CBS News its products "are safe and without question they meet regulatory safety levels. The EPA has researched this issue and has set rules that we follow."
The Guardian quotes a Kellogg's spokesman as saying: "Our food is safe. Providing safe, high-quality foods is one of the ways we earn the trust of millions of people around the world. The EPA sets strict standards for safe levels of these agricultural residues and the ingredients we purchase from suppliers for our foods fall under these limits."
In a statement emailed to multiple media outlets, EWG President Ken Cook called the responses of Quaker and General Mills "tone-deaf" and disappointing, and calls on the companies to "take the simple step of telling their oat farmers to stop using glyphosate as a harvest-time desiccant on their crops."
What parents can do
If you are concerned about glyphosate in your child's cereal, you can find oat-based food that don't contain any in the organic aisle. The EGW says none of the 16 products made from organically-grown oats contained levels above its safety benchmark. A few of the organic brands did have traces of glyphosate, but not at levels the EWG is concerned about.
And as Matthews points out in her coverage for Slate, the EWG's report "was simply published to the internet, rather than in a scientific journal or after peer review," something parents should consider when deciding whether or not to remove Cheerios from their child's breakfast menu.