From Cheerios to Oreos to chocolate glazed Timbits, a controversial weed-killing chemical has been found in several popular food products in Canada.
In a study commissioned by advocacy group Environmental Defence Canada and independently conducted by California-based Anresco Laboratories, 18 common food items were tested for glyphosate, the active ingredient of a chemical herbicide sold under the name Roundup and found in many agricultural and gardening products.
Although the issue remains hotly contested, several studies and court cases have linked the widely-used chemical to cancer.
In the Environmental Defence Canada study, traces of glyphosate were found in multiple children’s foods and snacks sold in Canada, including Kraft Dinner Original macaroni and cheese, Ritz Original crackers, President's Choice tortillas, two brands of hummus, breakfast cereals like General Mills’ Cheerios and Kellogg's Froot Loops as well as Tim Hortons chocolate glazed Timbits and sesame seed bagels. (Scroll down for a full list of the tested products and their glyphosate content)
Of the 18 products tested, only four did not contain glyphosate. And while the levels detected were in parts per billion -- a minute amount that’s far below the levels deemed safe by Health Canada, which are set in parts per million -- the fact there are trace amounts of a weed killer in foods in the first place may surprise many Canadians
Muhannad Malas, Toxics Program Manager at Environmental Defence, said the findings suggest that some consumers may be unknowingly ingesting trace amounts of the disputed herbicide multiple times a day.
“When we have evidence that a chemical is linked to cancer, I think questions need to be raised about, you know, what is a safe a limit?” Malas told CTV News. “What we’re trying to do here is really inform Canadians and let Canadians know that these are the facts, that our foods contain glyphosate and that glyphosate is a harmful chemical.”
A controversial chemical
In August, a California jury ruled that the herbicide was directly responsible for causing a man’s terminal cancer. But numerous reports, including one from Health Canada last year, found that the product poses no health risks.
Glyphosate is registered for use in more than 160 countries, making it the most widely-used weed killer in the world. Because it is sprayed on a variety of crops -- from corn to soybeans to wheat -- the chemical can end up in the harvested material that is used in food processing.
Companies with products named in the Environmental Defence Canada report told CTV News that they followed Health Canada guidelines and that their products are safe.
Bayer, which bought Roundup maker Monsanto in June, also insists that the chemical poses absolutely no harm.
“Glyphosate has more than a 40-year history of safe use. Over those four decades, researchers have conducted more than 800 scientific studies and reviews that prove glyphosate is safe for use,“ Bayer Canada’s Crop Science Division said in a written statement. (The full text of that statement has been included at the end of this article.)
The scientific community is also torn over whether or not ingesting glyphosate is harmful.
Health Canada’s most recent study of glyphosate, in 2017, found that the herbicide in low levels was “unlikely to pose a human cancer risk” and allowed it to be used for another 15 years.
That conclusion still stands, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“To date, none of the levels of glyphosate found in products through the CFIA surveys have been deemed to be a health risk by Health Canada and no recalls were warranted,” said spokesperson Karelle Beaudoin in a statement.
Similar findings have been released by the European Food Safety Authority, the European Chemicals Agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
Len Ritter, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Guelph, described the level of herbicides in the new report “extraordinarily low.”
“They’re not the kinds of levels with which we would be concerned toxicologically. So what would people get from this? I think nothing at all, quite frankly,” Ritter said.
Studying possible harm
Some reports, however, have raised serious concerns about the chemical. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Cancer Research Agency (IARC) declared that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen.” California has also added glyphosate to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer. (Aspirin, coffee and aloe vera have also made the list.)
Other animal-based studies suggest that the chemical can lead to reproductive issues among mammals and is harmful to bees, fish and rats.
Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist with the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, has studied the long-term effects of glyphosate on human health. She described the use of the herbicide as “a gigantic experiment that been going on for 40 years.”
“I see very strong correlations between the rise in a long list of debilitating autoimmune, neurological and oncological diseases exactly in step with the rise in use of glyphosate on core crops,” Seneff said.
In August, moreover, a San Francisco jury ordered Monsanto to pay US$289 million to a former school groundskeeper, saying that Roundup contributed to his terminal cancer.
Shares of Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in June, plunged 11 per cent immediately following the verdict. Bayer confirmed it was facing more than 8,700 similar lawsuits as of Aug. 27.
Dewayne Johnson, the former groundskeeper who had been accidentally doused with the chemical, said the ruling was “way bigger than me.”
“I hope it gets the attention that it needs," Johnson said following the decision.
Previous studies have found traces of the chemical in human urine, breast milk, beer and several common foods.
Cereals Canada responds
Farmers around the world commonly use glyphosate to kill weeds and control pests. But the U.S.-based Environmental Working Group says American farmers are increasingly spraying the chemical on oats and some other crops to help dry out the plants and harvest them sooner.
Grain producers say the herbicide is widely used and effective. Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada, said it’s important to consider the small amount of herbicide found in the 18 products.
“If people want to know what a part per billion is, you would have to eat about 36,000 full loaves of bread in a single day to get to the allowable daily limit of glyphosate. So these are very, very small, small numbers,” Dahl said.
Industry group Food & Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC) also weighed in on the report, calling the glyphosate levels “significantly below” the government’s safety requirements.
“FCPC recognises that glyphosate presence in foods may be of concern to Canadians. We are in regular consultation with regulatory authorities, academics, and our members to ensure the continued safety of our food,” said spokesperson Michelle Kurtz in a statement.
Despite disagreements over the safety of glyphosate in foods, several companies are now joining a growing trend by actively marketing glyphosate-free products. Many of those companies have sought certification from The Detox Project, a California-based group that describes itself as a “research and certification platform that encourages transparency in the food and supplement industries on the subject of toxic chemicals.”
“The revelation from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 that glyphosate is a ‘probable carcinogen’ has led to consumers across the globe asking for transparency regarding the levels of glyphosate in their food,” the group adds on its website. “The global success of the Non-GMO food market has shown that consumers are pushing for more and more transparency and pesticides is even higher on their list of concerns than GMOs.”
Companies with products tested by Environmental Defence Canada, as well as Bayer Canada, responded to questions from CTV News about the presence of glyphosate.
Sabra Dipping Company, Sabra Classic Hummus
“Producing wholesome, safe, delicious food is Sabra’s number one priority and we stand behind our products 100%. We have a comprehensive quality program that encourages agricultural best practices, to ensure that only the best possible ingredients are used in our products. In particular, we carefully comply with applicable laws relating to food safety, including laws that regulate any possible pesticide residues.”
Kraft Heinz Canada, Kraft Dinner Original Noodles
“Our products are safe and comply with Health Canada’s regulations. Health Canada has also evaluated various products including commodities like wheat found in pastas and found no human health concerns. In fact, as can be seen from the report, our product contains a small percentage of the amount Health Canada considers safe for wheat.”
Mondelez Canada, Ritz Original Crackers and Oreo Original Cookies
“Mondelēz Canada is committed to producing the highest quality foods possible. To this end we are also mindful about potential residues that may be in raw materials. To be assured that raw materials purchased by Mondelēz Canada are safe and suitable for us and our consumers, we take the additional step to monitor our raw materials to ensure that they meet appropriate specifications, our own standards AND that of the government (FDA, EPA for US & Health Canada, CFIA for Canada). Additionally, we hold our suppliers to those same standards. Importantly, our products which are mentioned in this report are in full compliance with Health Canada’s regulations.”
Fontaine Santé, Roasted Garlic Hummus
“We proudly stand by the safety and quality of our Fontaine Santé products. Preparing healthy products is Fontaine Santé’s number one priority, and we’ve been doing that for 28+ years.
Fontaine Santé makes all natural products using wholesome ingredients and does not add any glyphosate during the preparation of its products. Glyphosate, is a herbicide that is approved by regulatory agencies and is commonly used by farmers across the industry who apply it pre-harvest.
Fontaine Santé continually evaluates its product portfolio to ensure the highest quality and safety standards for our consumers. While the Fontaine Santé products comply with all safety and regulatory requirements, we are happy to be part of the discussion and are interested in collaborating with industry peers, regulators and other interested parties on glyphosate.”
PepsiCo, Quaker Large Flake Oats
“We proudly stand by the safety and quality of our Quaker products. Producing healthy, wholesome food is Quaker's number one priority, and we've been doing that for more than 140 years. Quaker does not add glyphosate during any part of the milling process. Glyphosate is commonly used by farmers across the industry who apply it pre-harvest. Once the oats are transported to us, we put them through our rigorous process that thoroughly cleanses them (de-hulled, cleaned, roasted and flaked). Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are significantly below any regulatory limits and well within compliance of the safety standards set by Health Canada, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as safe for human consumption. Quaker continually evaluates our product portfolio to ensure the highest quality and safety standards for our consumers. While our products comply with all safety and regulatory requirements, we are happy to be part of the discussion and are interested in collaborating with industry peers, regulators and other interested parties on glyphosate.”
Tim Hortons, chocolate glazed Timbits and sesame seed bagels
“At Tim Hortons, we stand by the integrity of our products. Nothing is more important to us than the quality of the food we serve our guests. In this case, Health Canada’s position is clear: dietary risks from food and water are “not of concern.” We remain committed to working with our suppliers to ensure our products meet the highest standards for food safety and quality.”
Bayer Canada, Crop Science Division
“Environmental Defence Canada is a social action environmental group that has as one of its mandates opposing the use of chemicals in everyday products, including products like glyphosate. Glyphosate is a widely-used and effective herbicide with a 40-year history of safe use. Canada’s health authorities have extensively reviewed glyphosate and approved it for use according to label instructions.
It is not uncommon to find trace amounts of pesticides in food since some food is grown using pesticides, which protects crops from insects, disease and weeds. Importantly, these levels reported by Environmental Defense Canada are not even remotely close to any level of concern. These numbers must be put into meaningful context:
For chickpea based foods, the highest reported value was 760 parts per billion in hummus. At this level, an adult would have to eat 28 kg of hummus every day for life to reach PMRA’s allowable exposure limit. That’s over a kilogram of hummus every hour of every day for life without sleeping.
For wheat-based foods (744 parts per billion in tortillas), an adult would have to eat 28 kg of tortillas every day for the life to reach PMRA’s allowable exposure limit. That’s 430 tortillas per day. Every day.
Regulatory authorities have strict rules when it comes to pesticide residues. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, set daily exposure limits at least 100 times below levels show to have no negative effect in safety studies. Health Canada has clearly stated there is no risk from eating conventionally-grown foods because of pesticide residues.
Glyphosate has more than a 40-year history of safe use. Over those four decades, researchers have conducted more than 800 scientific studies and reviews that prove glyphosate is safe for use.“
With a report from CTV's medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip
Full list of the tested products and their glyphosate content