The Canadian Food Inspection Agency released a report on glyphosate residues in food (PDF format) last week, and the headlines were not positive.
Global News and other media outlets said CFIA scientists found glyphosate in nearly 30 percent of Canadian food samples.
The headlines were accurate, but did they reflect the actual health risk to Canadians?
Aline Dimitri, the CFIA’s deputy chief food safety officer and executive director, said Canadians don’t need to worry about glyphosate in food.
“At the end of the day, what this (report) is saying to us is that the Canadian food system is safe,” she said.
“Over 98 percent of our samples didn’t have glyphosate residues above the MRLs (maximum residue limits). And even within those (over the limit), none of them posed a health and safety risk.”
CFIA scientists looked in 2015 and 2016 for glyphosate residues in 3,188 samples of food, which were bought from grocery stores across the country.
They tested fresh produce, processed fruits and vegetables, grain products, juice and other beverages, bean-pea-lentil products, soy products and baby food.
They detected glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and the most popular herbicide in the world, in 29.7 percent of the 3,188 samples. The number seems high but doesn’t mean much because modern tests can detect miniscule amounts of chemicals in food, Dimitri said.
“Science keeps getting better and better. Our methods keep getting better and better. So yes, the levels of detection keep dropping and dropping,” she said.
“This is why we don’t put that much emphasis on the detection component. We put emphasis on the maximum residue levels, where we know is the threshold from a safety perspective.”
The testing showed that 1.3 percent of all samples had residues higher than the MRLs.
The CFIA used the following MRLs:
• Barley: 10 parts per million
• Wheat, peas: 5 p.p.m.
• Bean, lentils, chickpeas: 4 p.p.m.
• Soybean: 20 p.p.m.
• A general MRL of .1 p.p.m.
When a particular food, say a breakfast cereal, exceeded the MRL, the result was forwarded to Health Canada to assess the public health risk.
“All of the data … came back as not a safety issue for Canadians,” Dimitri said, adding that the CFIA would have immediately recalled the offending product if Health Canada said there was a risk.
“If there had been some health and safety issue, it would have been known well in advance of this report.”
Dimitri said the CFIA hasn’t released the brand names of food products that exceeded the MRL because there is no health or safety risk to the public.
The CFIA began testing for glyphosate residues in 2015, partly because the herbicide became extremely controversial that year.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded in March 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” to humans.
Many toxicologists slammed the decision, saying the IARC panel relied on questionable science and ignored more robust studies.
As well, numerous scientific and regulatory bodies, including Health Canada, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency, have studied the herbicide and concluded it’s not carcinogenic and not a threat to human health.
Despite the body of evidence showing it’s safe, the European Union came close to banning it last year because of the IARC report.
The IARC finding also prompted consumer and environmental groups in the United States to sue companies over glyphosate residues in food such as granola bars and honey.
Tyler Bjornson, president of the Canada Grains Council, said the CFIA report demonstrates that glyphosate residues aren’t a health or safety issue.
“Close to 99 percent of the food that was tested was in compliance with the Canadian standards and there were exceedances,” he said.
“Health Canada determined there weren’t any risks.”
The percentage of samples above an MRL were low, but glyphosate was detected in nearly 30 percent of food.
For example, CFIA scientists found the herbicide in 30.7 of in baby food samples. Such a number could potentially scare a new mother in Toronto, Vancouver or anywhere in Canada.
Dimitri said those mothers don’t need to worry. No samples of baby food or baby cereal exceeded the MRL, so there isn’t a risk.
“Yes, science can detect it … (but) zooming on just one thing (percentage of samples with glyphosate) can bias the message.”
Tested foods may contain only a few parts per billion or parts per trillion of glyphosate, but those amounts are unclear because the CFIA didn’t include that data in its report.
For example, the data isn’t available if a Canadian wants to know how much glyphosate the CFIA found in granola bars.
Dimitri said that may change in the future.
“The Government of Canada is moving towards that open science, and with open science comes open data,” she said.
“I think Canadians will have access to it (the glyphosate residue data) in due course, but it’s certainly not hidden information.”