Pesticide residues vex food firms

Food companies are struggling with costly challenges launched by anti-pesticide activists.

While they are not facing mega-costs like Bayer is facing with the recent US$289 million jury judgment against Monsanto, activist lawsuits and claims are causing food companies to spend time and resources on lawyers and repackaging.

General Mills, the food and cereals colossus that makes Cheerios, just settled a lawsuit launched by Moms Across America, Beyond Pesticides and Organic Consumers Union by agreeing to drop its “100 percent natural” claim about the oats in one of its breakfast bar products.

The activist groups claimed that there were glyphosate residues in the oats, which was enough to invalidate the claim. They said they found half of one part per million in the oats tested in the Nature Valley granola bars, or one-60th of the U.S. maximum allowed.

General Mills denied the label was incorrect or that there was anything wrong with its product or its packaging.

“Nature Valley is confident in the accuracy of its label,” said spokesperson Mike Siemienas.

The agreement to change the label claim was just to avoid costly litigation, Siemienas said.

Other companies have also faced claims and lawsuits against using terms such as “natural,” often with tiny glyphosate residues as the reason.

The Organic Consumers Association has sued Ben and Jerry’s ice cream owner Unilever over glyphosate residues, and Post Foods and Quaker Oats have faced lawsuits over glyphosate residues in foods labelled “natural.”

The targeted products have generally not claimed to be organic, but the activists’ lawyers have argued that consumers believe “natural” means there will be zero residues of chemicals.

The lawsuits have not achieved much success in court, but some companies, such as General Mills, have chosen to settle cases rather than be caught in multi-year legal struggles.

The public furor over glyphosate continues to ferment with an Aug. 15 study by activist organization Environmental Working Group receiving huge play in the mainstream media, leading to millions of stories being shared on Facebook and other social media.

The group entitled its news release Breakfast With a Dose of Roundup? and led the story with, “Popular oat cereals, oatmeal, granola and snack bars come with a hefty dose of the weed-killing poison in Roundup.”

That tone extended to most of the media coverage, despite the fact that the residues were far beneath regulatory limits, being listed in the report in parts per billion.

“Report: Oatmeal, breakfast foods contain unsafe amounts of weed killer,” was the Detroit Free Press headline.

Most mainstream media reports reported the claims, referred to the recent jury award against Monsanto and mentioned the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s much-challenged claim that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic.”

Slate magazine, the respected online news source, tore apart the Environmental Working Group’s claims with its science editor, Susan Matthews, stating that “basically the EWG threshold has to be set at one-ten-thousandth of what the (Environmental Protection Agency) has deemed to be safe for the trace amounts of glyphosate to register.”

However, that informed analysis did not make nearly the same public impact that the initial claims did, leaving food companies with a continuing headache of trying to explain pesticide residues and safety.

Major companies named in the report included Quaker, General Mill’s Nature Valley and Kellogg’s.

Bayer’s Monsanto hangover has just begun, but food companies have long grappled with pesticide residue challenges, and there’s no sign of those challenges subsiding.

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