Rather than being ‘scared,’ consumers should look for the evidence and make informed decisions

CRIS Director Michael Holsapple reviews a story from the New York Times on the presence of glyphosate in ice cream.

August 1, 2017

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Michael Holsapple is Director of the Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Research on Ingredient Safety (CRIS) and Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.  He is also a toxicologist with over 35 years of experience.  He recently reviewed a story from the New York Times on the presence of glyphosate in ice cream.

A recent, rather unbalanced, story in the New York Times, “Traces of Controversial Herbicide Are Found in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream” (7/25/17) seems to emphasize the need to “be afraid . . be very afraid”.  The trigger for this story was a study that found traces of glyphosate in 10 of 11 samples of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  Specifically, the story states that “Among the flavors tested, Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie showed the highest levels of glyphosate, with 1.74 parts per billion” – “parts per billion” are frequently referred to as “ppb”.  To put “1.74 ppb” into some sort of ‘real world’ context, think of the following examples . . . “1.74 seconds in nearly 32 years” . . . “slightly less than two pinches of salt in 10 tons of potato chips” . . . “1.74 sheets in a roll of toilet paper stretching from New York City to London”.

As reported in the story, the chief executive of the Health Research Institute Laboratories, which did the testing, calculated that “a 75-pound child would have to consume 145,000 eight-ounce servings a day of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream to hit the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the (US) government body charged with setting a ceiling on the amount of glyphosate allowed in food.”  The conclusion made by the chief executive was that “Based on these government standards, the levels found in Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream would seem totally irrelevant”.

The article clearly identifies the Organic Consumer’s Association (OCA), as the organization which provided the funding for the study on the levels of glyphosate in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  According to their website, the OCA is “an online and grassroots, non-profit, public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability”.  They describe themselves as “the only organization in the US focused exclusively on promoting the views and interests of the nations estimated 50 million organic and socially responsible consumers”.  They refer to their overall political program, as the “Organic Agenda”, which is a six-part platform that includes,

  • The conversion of American agriculture to organic
  • A phase-out of the most dangerous industrial agriculture and factory farming practices

Getting back to the story in the NY Times, the founder and international director of the OCA recognized that the amount of glyphosate found in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream would not violate any regulations; but went on to emphasize that “not everyone agrees with the acceptable levels governments have set.”  Importantly, the NY times story then goes on to declare that “It’s far from clear” and notes that “divergent findings over glyphosate’s impact on health have divided governments, scientists and even the World Health Organization”.  This is the point where I believe that this story is unbalanced because the writer of the story only cites the conclusion from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).  Where is the discussion regarding “divergent findings”?

The writer is correct that the WHO IARC did declare in March, 2015 that “The herbicide glyphosate was classified as ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans”.  However, another organization associated with the WHO - the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) came to a different conclusion in May, 2016, “The Meeting concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”.  Confused?  Don’t be!  The WHO acknowledged that the conclusions reached by the IARC and the JMPR were “different, yet complimentary”.  Specifically, the IARC assessed glyphosate as a “hazard”, while the JMPR looked at “risks”.

IARC studies whether chemicals can cause cancer under any possible situation – realistic or not.  In contrast, JMPR looked at whether glyphosate can cause cancer in real-life conditions.  One of these approaches is – by design – much more relevant to our lives than the other.  The health community uses both hazard- and risk-based approaches to food safety, and each offers advantages and disadvantages.  A hazard-based approach is easier to regulate and explain because all potentially harmful compounds are included. However, it can lead to overuse of precautionary statements such as “may contain,” and therefore may be impractical.  A risk-based approach quantifies and prioritizes risk, based on real-world conditions of exposure, which understandably requires more time and data to evaluate each hazard.  The US EPA has developed a four-step human health risk assessment model to estimate the nature and probability of adverse health effects in humans who may be exposed to chemicals in the environment:

Step 1. Hazard Identification. Can a substance cause harm to humans and under what conditions?

Step 2. Dose Response Assessment. What is the relationship between exposure and effect?

Step 3. Exposure Assessment. What is the frequency, timing, and level of contact with the hazard?

Step 4. Risk Characterization. What is the risk to health, based on the hazard and exposure?

Misperceptions of risk as it relates to the presence of a hazard, and a general lack of understanding of the importance of exposure can contribute to food fears.  Here, it’s important to understand the difference between hazard, which is something that could cause harm, and risk, which represents the probability that harm will occur at a given exposure.  A shark can be used as a metaphor for the difference between a hazard and a risk.  Sharks have sharp teeth and powerful jaws that certainly could cause harm; the shark is therefore unquestionably a hazard.  However, viewing the hazardous shark at an aquarium poses a much-diminished risk than the conditions associated with swimming in shark-infested waters, because of a much lower probability for exposure.

I’ve spent a lot time focused on the conclusions reached by two different organizations within the WHO.  I’ve emphasized that these conclusions were different because IARC assessed glyphosate using a hazard-based approach and applying the ‘precautionary principle’, while JMPR assessed glyphosate using a risk-based approach.  What have other regulatory authorities concluded about glyphosate?  The EPA FIFRA (e.g., the part of EPA with regulatory oversite of pesticides) Science Advisory Panel (SAP) concluded in 09/16 that “glyphosate is not likely carcinogenic to humans at doses relevant to human health risk assessment”.  PMRA (e.g., the regulatory authority in Canada with oversite of pesticides) concluded in 05/15 that “products containing glyphosate do not present unacceptable risks to human health or the environment when used according to the label directions”.  APVMA (e.g., the regulatory authority in Australia with oversite of pesticides) in 12/15 “concluded that glyphosate does not pose a cancer risk to humans”.  BfR (e.g., the regulatory authority in Germany with oversite of pesticides) concluded in 03/15 that “a comprehensive review and scientifically sound consideration of the data and arguments that led to the IARC conclusion is simply not possible at the moment”.  Finally, the EFSA (e.g., European Food Safety Authority), concluded in 11/15 that “glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic (e.g., damaging to DNA) or to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans”.  Importantly, the NY Times story also mentions “European regulatory limits for glyphosate consumption”, and concluded that based on those limits, “a child would have to eat 25,000 servings a day, and an adult (would have to eat) 50,000 (servings a day) for the herbicide to pose a threat”.

Last night, as I thought about my decision to develop this perspective on the glyphosate story in the NY Times, I reflected on where to begin.  So, I purchased a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream to review the label.  Not too surprisingly, the manufacturer was transparent on their label.  First, they note that the serving size is ½ cup, which is 4 fl. oz., which was a bit surprising to me.  I was pretty sure that the images of the three cups of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, that accompanied the story in the NY Times, were greater than ½ cup.  This image may explain why the chief executive of the lab, who conducted the analysis of glyphosate levels, suggested that “a 75-pound child would have to consume 145,000 eight-ounce servings a day . . . “.  To put a 4 ounce serving of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream into perspective, I precisely filled a ‘½ cup-sized’-measuring cup and proceeded to eat it using a teaspoon.  It took me only a dozen spoonfuls to consume my ice cream.

As conveyed on our website, http://www.canr.msu.edu/cris/about/, CRIS is an independent, academic, science-based center that will serve as a reliable and unbiased source for information on the safe use of chemical ingredients in consumer packaged goods including foods, beverages, cosmetics and household consumer products.  In the interest of transparency, we have included a Members section on our website, which clearly identifies Monsanto and Unilever – Unilever owns Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.  Importantly, I did not solicit comments from any of the CRIS members as I wrote this commentary.

Finally, the CRIS website indicates that we will communicate findings about ingredient safety to consumers, policymakers, and industry in a timely fashion to support evidence-informed decision making, which is consistent with the title of this article.  So, as a consumer, you have a choice.

You can choose to recognize that an 8-ounce serving of Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream contains glyphosate at levels equivalent to “1.74 seconds in nearly 32 years” – and push it away.

Or you can decide that – even though you may not be happy that there is an infinitesimally small amount of glyphosate present, you decide that there is not a risk – so you read the carton label, and you proceed to eat an 8-ounce serving of Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream.  In doing so, you accept the facts that you are consuming 520 calories (240 calories from fat), 26 g of total fat (40% of your % Daily Value, DV), 16 g of saturated fat (80% of your % DV), 100 mg of cholesterol (34% of your % DV) 140 mg of sodium (6% of your % DV), 60 g of total carbohydrates (20% of your % DV) and 4 g of dietary fiber (16% of your % DV).

You have a choice.  If you look for the evidence, you can make an informed decision.

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