Ten weeks after the nonprofit Environmental Working Group published a report that found the presence of a weed-killer in breakfast foods, a new round of tests is likely to generate additional concerns.
In August, the EWG said it discovered traces of glyphosate, the most widely used agricultural pesticide in the world, in dozens of Quaker, Kellogg’s, and General Mills products, including cereals like Cheerios and Lucky Charms.
The timing of the report aligned closely with a $289 million lawsuit against Monsanto (recently acquired by Bayer), which uses glyphosate as the active ingredient in its popular herbicide Roundup. On Monday, a judge denied the company’s motion for a new trial after ruling that Monsanto knew its product was “dangerous” and could lead to cancer.
The EWG said in its August report that it tested the levels of glyphosate in 45 samples of conventionally grown oats and determined that 31 fell below its safety criteria. Its latest study tested another 28 samples, focusing exclusively on Cheerios and Quaker Oats products, and found that all but two showed harmful levels of glyphosate, according to its measures.
But we don’t yet know whether glyphosate is actually linked to cancer. As it stands, most published research has found that glyphosate isn’t a health threat at the low levels that consumers are exposed to.
Does glyphosate cause cancer?
Certain scientific groups have insisted there is a link between glyphosate and cancer, but others aren’t convinced.
Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the European Commission, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, and the World Health Organization’s International Program on Chemical Safety have determined that glyphosate does not present a public health concern.
Much of the argument surrounding glyphosate boils down to a report published by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer that said the herbicide was “probably carcinogenic in humans.” But an extensive review of the material by Reuters found that the IARC had edited parts of the document that didn’t align with its conclusion.
While some scientists have backed away from the IARC’s findings, others are doubling down.
Alex Lu, an associate professor of environmental exposure biology at Harvard, described the IARC as a “world-renowned and reputable” institution whose findings have benefitted global cancer researchers. Having conducted his own research of pesticides in children’s diets, Lu said he believed the EWG’s safety measures were relatively conservative and that its threshold “is too high.”
“This is especially true for parents buying breakfast cereals for their infants and children,” said Lu, who is not affiliated with the EWG, though it has covered his findings in the past.
The EWG considers any cereal with a glyphosate level of more than 160 parts per billion to be unsafe. The legal limit for oats— as outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency — is 30 parts per million, or 30,000 parts per billion, for adults, making the EWG’s threshold nearly 188 times as stringent as the EPA’s regulations (though it’s common to enforce stricter limits for children).
“Since children have an increased susceptibility to cancer-causing substances, it’s standard scientific practice to include a tenfold margin of safety,” said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the EWG.
Are Cheerios safe to eat?
In the wake of the EWG’s findings in August, both General Mills and Quaker insisted their products are safe. The companies released statements to Fast Company citing their compliance with Environmental Protection Agency standards.
“Our products are safe and without question they meet regulatory safety levels,” General Mills said.
“Once the oats are transported to us, we put them through our rigorous process that thoroughly cleanses them,” Quaker said in a statement, adding, “Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are significantly below any regulatory limits.”
But it still warrants the question: Are the EPA’s standards up to par?
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health argued that it could be time to reassess our criteria. It found enough evidence to suggest that the existing EPA safety standards for glyphosate is “outdated and may fail to protect public health or the environment.”
The EWG said in its report this week that “the EPA’s standards for pesticides and other chemicals are also heavily influenced by lobbying from industry.”
Despite these claims, there’s still not enough data to conclusively determine a risk. For this reason, Lu said, people might want to limit their exposure to glyphosate as a precautionary measure.
Those worried about the safety of their breakfast foods should consider what the EWG has to say about individual foods.
Of the 28 new samples, the group found that Quaker Oatmeal Squares cereal showed the highest levels of glyphosate, nearly 18 times as high as its safety threshold.
Other foods that stood out as particularly hazardous by the report’s standards included Quaker Overnight Oats and Cheerios’ Oat Crunch Cinnamon flavor. But even these foods wouldn’t be considered unsafe by the EPA.
As with any scientific study, it’s possible that new research could shed light on the EWG’s warnings. Even studies that once seemed definitive have been called into question — the US Department of Health and Human Services recently determined that after decades of being labeled a carcinogen, a zero-calorie sweetener called saccharin is not thought to cause cancer.
It’s also possible that scientists could uncover new safety concerns for crops like wheat, barley, beans, and chickpeas, which are exposed to glyphosate before harvest.