American Honey: Same Great Taste but Now With More Weed Killer

FDA documents show that the herbicide glyphosate is finding its way into honey too.
(Photo: Vera Yu and David Li/Flickr)
Sep 16, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What in the world to do now that glyphosate, the most heavily used weed killer in the world—a probable human carcinogen, no less—is showing up in everything from breakfast cereal to eggs?

The public interest group U.S. Right to Know announced this week that it has obtained documents showing the Food and Drug Administration has found residues of glyphosate in samples of American honey. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, the use of which has increased 15-fold since the company introduced its line of Roundup Ready crops genetically modified to withstand the chemical some 20 years ago.

Yet despite the skyrocketing use of glyphosate, federal regulators have been pressing the snooze button when it comes to dealing with Big Ag’s chemical onslaught. It was only this year that the FDA agreed to start testing samples of U.S. food for the presence of glyphosate, spurred by growing public unease about an herbicide that Monsanto and other chemical makers have long assured is safe—but that the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared last year likely can cause cancer in humans.

That it took a Freedom of Information Act request from a nongovernmental watchdog group to get some answers from the FDA on its testing only begins to point to the government’s dysfunctional approach to regulating glyphosate—or, more aptly, not regulating it.

The newly obtained documents include the testing results for three honey samples, which contained glyphosate in concentrations of 22 parts per billion, 41 parts per billion, and 107 parts per billion. That’s a small number of samples, but an FDA scientist lamented in an email, “One of the issues I found is that it is difficult to find blank honey that does not contain residue. I collect about 10 samples of honey in the market and they all contain glyphosate.”

How do the test results square with the level of glyphosate that federal regulators legally allow in honey? Well, as with any number of foods, the feds haven’t bothered to set a tolerance level for glyphosate in honey—something the FDA scientist testing honey pointed out to Chris Sack, who oversees such pesticide residue testing at the agency. As Sack responded, “You are correct that honey has no tolerance listed for glyphosate, but there are good reasons for that.... In recent re-evaluations of glyphosate exposure and toxicity, [the Environmental Protection Agency] has confirmed that glyphosate is almost non-toxic to humans and animals. So, while the presence of glyphosate in honey is technically a violation, it is not a safety issue.”

But the EPA’s assessment of whether glyphosate causes cancer was removed from that agency’s website almost as soon as it was posted last year, and it hasn’t reappeared. The EPA continues to push back the date by which the public might expect it to weigh in on the simmering controversy, most recently suggesting that Americans who are growing ever more wary of glyphosate might have to wait until next spring for answers.

Meanwhile, independent tests by environmental and public health groups have found glyphosate residues in a range of foods. Many, like honey, are unexpected places to find the chemical because it’s not directly used in the food’s production—suggesting Americans may be consuming far more glyphosate than thought. For example, a study of store-bought breakfast foods by the Alliance for Natural Health turned up glyphosate in items such as dairy-based coffee creamer, organic eggs, and whole wheat bread. Consumer advocates have filed suit against companies such as PepsiCo and Post, claiming that products like Quaker Oats and Shredded Wheat shouldn’t be marketed as “all-natural” if they contain glyphosate residue.

All of which points to perhaps the only way to effectively put the skids on glyphosate’s two-decade march to dominance. Just this week, Bayer announced plans to buy Monsanto for $66 billion. If the feds have been reluctant to scrutinize Monsanto’s claims that glyphosate is perfectly safe, we probably can’t expect them to take on a corporate behemoth as large as a combined Monsanto-Bayer. But big food makers, with billions of dollars in sales at stake, might prove a formidable counterforce if U.S. courts start to rule that foods tainted with glyphosate can’t be hawked as “pure” or “natural.”