Issue #78 | As Safe as Table Salt (Not) | Beautiful Data Dashboards | Japanese Fakes in Action |
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Glyphosate and table salt (oh Monsanto!)
Datasets for the American Food System
Fake Food, Japanese Style (Just for Fun)
News and Resources Roundup
Food fraud incidents, updates and emerging issues
Welcome to Issue 78 of The Rotten Apple, where I get angry and sad 😢 about the world’s most widely used agricultural chemical.
This week’s main story is about glyphosate. It’s not very nice reading for the food industry, with our reliance on “Big Agriculture”. If you are a policy-maker or senior decision-maker, I urge you to go deeper and do your own research into issues like the one I discuss. There is a lot of disinformation out there. And our lives – quite literally – depend on your ability to cut through the bullsh#$% and get to the science-backed evidence.
I love (loooove) data. To be precise, I love tools that turn data into information and knowledge so we can use it to make changes for the better. In this issue I share a set of “dashboards” for accessing and visualising data on food systems.
Our food safety news this week has some deadly outbreaks from the unusual food-borne pathogens Nipah virus and Leptospira plus some (actual!) good news about chemical residues in meat from Europe.
Our just-for-fun section this week is a guessing game video; what does the white sheet become when turned into a Japanese plastic food sample?
As always, food fraud news is at the end for paying subscribers (who are awesome people!), including an early warning about beef supply chains.
If you like this newsletter, share it with your networks, and enjoy this week’s issue.
P.S. Reminder: our first live event is on 16th/17th March. It’s an informal online meet-up, a chance to meet other food professionals from around the globe. Come say hi! Click the link to learn more.
Cover image courtesy of The New York Public Library via Unsplash
Is Glyphosate Safe (Oh My, Monsanto!)
I remember spraying Roundup on my friend’s farm as a teenager in 1985. We sprayed it from tanks worn as backpacks, from long metal wands with plastic trigger handles. We sprayed it in sheep paddocks and cow pastures, along fence lines, building perimeters and road verges to kill weeds. We sprayed it around like water.
We thought it was safe. Everyone did. Advertisements claimed that Roundup, a herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate, was safer than table salt. My friend’s parents, and all their neighbours, bought it by the tanker load. They would have been surprised to learn that just one year before, in 1984, scientists at the US EPA had flagged glyphosate’s ability to cause cancer.
Glyphosate is Big Business
Glyphosate is the most widely used agricultural chemical in the world. Almost every GMO crop has been genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. These are known as ‘Roundup Ready’ crops, Roundup being the brand name of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide. Glyphosate use in US agriculture increased by 3,153% from 1990 to 2014, (yes, three thousand percent) across all major crops including soybeans, corn, wheat, upland cotton, sorghum, sugar beets, canola, oranges, barley and alfalfa.
Glyphosate is in Food, and in People
In many countries, glyphosate is allowed to be sprayed directly onto food crops like wheat, oat and beans just before harvest to kill the leafy parts of the crop and allow for easy harvesting of its seeds. And some of that herbicide ends up on our plates and in our bodies.
How to Prove a Herbicide is ‘Safe’
When Monsanto submitted a glyphosate safety study to the US EPA in the 1980s, scientists at the agency were so worried about the results that they created and unanimously signed an official document sharing their concerns, which they presented to senior management.
Top executives at the EPA first listened, then later overruled the concerns of their own scientists, a decision that they justified – incredibly – on the comments of a single pathologist from New York. The pathologist reviewed the study – the one the EPA scientists said showed evidence of carcinogenicity – and managed to convince the EPA’s senior executives that its findings were questionable.
The process used to discredit the evidence is hard to believe. Monsanto provided the New York pathologist with materials from the glyphosate safety study: microscope slides of kidney tissue from mice that had been fed glyphosate and slides from a control group of mice that had not been fed the chemical. The mice fed glyphosate had developed tumours, which was why the EPA scientists had concluded it was unsafe. The mice in the control group had not. The pathologist, however, said he could see one “possible” tumour on a slide from the control group of two hundred mice. This single, “possible” artefact on one slide out of two hundred, found by a pathologist hired by Monsanto, was the EPA’s justification for disregarding the entire study.
Disturbingly, the pathologist’s findings were predicted by Monsanto before he had even looked at the slides. An internal Monsanto memo said the pathologist’s report would persuade the EPA that the tumour findings were questionable. The memo was written before the pathologist had even seen the slides (source).
With the safety study on glyphosate now apparently unusable, the EPA asked Monsanto to perform another one (yup, pesticide safety studies are usually performed by brand owners, not regulators). Monsanto refused to repeat the study, saying that doing so would “require the expenditure of significant resources … and tie-up valuable laboratory space.”
For the next four years, the EPA continued to request that Monsanto repeat the study and Monsanto continued to refuse, telling the EPA “It is the judgement of Monsanto scientists that the weight-of-evidence strongly supports a conclusion that glyphosate is not oncogenic in the mouse.” Eventually, the EPA gave up and dropped the requirement for a repeated study. Glyphosate was officially ‘safe’.
That same original mouse study from the 1980s, the one that Monsanto refused to repeat, was later reviewed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), who, like the EPA’s own scientists, said it proved the chemical was carcinogenic to animals. The IARC stated that the EPA’s decision to classify the chemical as safe was scientifically flawed.
The IARC classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.
Since the 1980s there have been more studies that link glyphosate and cancer, including at least one filed in the US EPA’s own archive.
The Safety ‘Debate’
(spoiler alert, there is no real debate)
If reputable, independent scientists, scholars and government agencies agree that glyphosate is most definitely NOT safe, why do many of us believe that it is? Because, according to at least one group of scientists, the company that makes glyphosate has engaged in an unholy war of disinformation for the past three decades. Turns out big tobacco and the fossil fuel industry aren’t the only ones willing to manufacture a powerful disinformation machine for the sake of profits.
In the 1980s a bunch of middle-aged white guys who held senior positions in the fossil fuel industry created a plan to methodically destroy the credibility of climate scientists to protect their company’s profits. In doing so they knowingly set our planet down a path to out-of-control climate catastrophe. To find that this same deception was perpetrated in the agriculture industry should be shocking. But I don’t find it shocking, just heartbreakingly sad.
As far back as 1968, executives at the top of big oil, the American Petroleum Institute, knew about global warming and were formulating strategies to protect their industry by using what are now well-known tactics to create and disseminate disinformation. Just like the tobacco industry did with cigarettes. Just like Monsanto is now accused of doing with glyphosate.
Stacy Malkan and her colleagues at US Right to Know accuse Monsanto and its allies of using the same disinformation tactics as big oil and big tobacco to deceive farmers, governments and consumers about the health risks posed by glyphosate. Documents they sourced using freedom of information requests and from papers submitted to lawsuits against Monsanto show that the company knew for decades about its toxicity, and provide evidence of how the company worked to spin a different story.
The group has published a report that claims Monsanto continues to cast shadows on the science, deny evidence and deflect blame, even as it faces thousands of lawsuits from workers, farmers, gardeners and consumers with cancers related to glyphosate use.
The report presents credible evidence that Monsanto:
“co-opted academic institutions and paid academics to promote and defend its products, and lobby for deregulation;
deployed a wide range of third-party allies — many of whom falsely claimed to be independent of industry — to defend its products, attack the scientists who raised cancer concerns about glyphosate, and dominate online spaces, including Google News searches, with pesticide industry messaging.”
Monsanto uses search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques to get “glyphosate is safe” results to the top of online search results. I can attest to how SEO tactics are both powerful and easy to manipulate because I use them to help people find my business and share truthful, helpful, evidence-based information. Monsanto, its PR professionals and its industry lobby groups, on the other hand, use SEO not to help people, but to promote the questionable narrative that glyphosate is safe.
If you don’t believe me, check out pages 62 to 68 of Malkan’s report. It’s both fascinating and horrifying.
One way to manipulate public perceptions is with independent blog posts and articles. A supposedly ‘independent’ scientist who writes articles discrediting research about the risks of glyphosate has earned more than $200,000 in consultancy fees from Bayer (which owns Monsanto). His articles are published by the Genetic Literacy Project, an organisation that appears independent but was founded and previously funded by Monsanto and is now funded by Bayer.
Now that the probable cancer-causing status of glyphosate has been recognised, will it be allowed to continue to be used on food crops? The EU is currently debating its legal status, with a decision due this year. A US court of appeals ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of glyphosate was unlawful in 2022. But with such widespread use of glyphosate in food production, glyphosate might just be “too big to fail”.
Takeaways for food professionals: 🍏 Safety assessments for some agricultural chemicals have been based on scientifically flawed processes 🍏 Google searches for toxicity and safety of chemicals can return biased results 🍏 Scientific evidence can be ‘buried’ from search results using search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques 🍏 Food grains and beans can contain glyphosate, a probable human carcinogen, due to its deliberate application during production 🍏
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Datasets for the American Food System
The geniuses (or is that genii?) at Purdue University have created a fabulous set of ‘dashboards’ that allow consumers and food sector professionals to access and interpret humungous sets of data easily. They recently added restaurant sales and food delivery sales dashboards to their list of tools.
Readers of The Rotten Apple will find the dashboards for food supply and food prices useful – although the data is for the USA only.
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Food Safety News and Resources
No ads, no sponsored content: our weekly roundup of global food safety news is carefully curated and only top-quality information makes the cut.
This week includes: weird plants cause a recall in Denmark, mad-cow disease confirmed in Brazil and deaths from Nipah virus, and more…
Click the preview box below to access it.
Fake Food, Japanese Style (Just for Fun)
Japanese plastic food samples are gorgeous, life-sized replicas of dishes served in restaurants.
This four-minute video gives an insight into how they are made. I challenge you to guess what the white sheet becomes…
What you missed in last week’s email
· Five food safety trends to watch out for in 2023
· How To Address Document Fraud In Food Fraud Vulnerability Assessments (for paying subscribers)
· News and Resources Roundup - including ‘mad honey’ poisoning from an obscure natural toxin
· Just for Fun, learn about coffee bean production
Below for paying subscribers: Food fraud news, incident reports, and emerging issues, plus 🎧 audio 🎧 so you can catch up while on the go
📌 Food Fraud News 📌
Beef meat is subject to an alert. Chilled beef carcasses from bulls with fraudulent ear tags were identified in the
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