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OMG! GMO! In Froot Loops! Reason for concern, but not about cereal

| February 18, 2015

Recent postings on the GMO Free USA raised concerns about the levels of the common herbicide glyphosate–approved for safe use in home gardens and agriculture for more than 30 years—which they found traces of in Kellogg’s Froot Loops and Frito-Lay’s SunChips:

The glyphosate residue test was conducted by an accredited lab using the Specific LC/MS/MS testing method with a minimum detectable level of 0.02 ppm. The test documented the presence of glyphosate in Froot Loops at a level of 0.12 ppm, or 0.12 mg/kg. This gives significant reason for concern.

At GMO Free USA, we agree. Yet the EPA’s Chronic Reference Dose (RfD), which is supposed to represent the “safe” daily tolerance level, is nearly 6 times higher than the level set as an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) in the European Union. The EPA has set our Chronic RfD at 1.75 mg/kg of body weight per day, while the equivalent ADI of glyphosate in the E.U. is only 0.3 mg/kg of body weight per day. Despite the fact that children eat more food per pound of body weight, the EPA’s 1.75 mg/kg of body weight Rfd is the same for children and adults, even though children are much more vulnerable.

The activist site issue a call for boycotts of these products and companies, But why? Assuming their tests are accurate, do trace amounts of glyphosate found in common foods pose a “significant reason for concern”?

According to international regulatory agencies and independent scientists, as chemicals go, glyphosate—which is the active ingredient of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide, now off patent–is considered relatively mild. It’s biodegradable, so it’s more sustainable than most herbicides, including many used in organic agriculture. It’s not carcinogenic or teratogenic (causing birth defects) and is not an endocrine disruptor. It’s LD 50 rating, a measure of toxicity, is lower than common salt.

That doesn’t mean this or any chemical cannot be harmful when misused or found at dangerous levels. All substances are potentially toxic; the dose makes the poison, as Dr. Anastasia Bodnar of Biology Fortified explains:

Of course glyphosate is toxic! It is a herbicide after all – the whole point of glyphosate (G for short in this post) is to kill unwanted plants. Like all chemicals, including water and salt, G is going to be toxic to animals (including humans) at some dose. Compared to other herbicides, though, G is a pretty safe option for killing weeds. Don’t take my word for it, check out the Glyphosate Technical Fact Sheet from the National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State. G’s relative safety is one reason why it’s become so popular.

So the real question is: Do the trace amounts of glyphosate found in Sunchips or Froot Loops pose even the remotest danger to humans?

Because of sophisticated bio-monitoring devices developed in recent years, scientists can now find trace levels of chemicals in parts per billion or even trillion. A thimbleful of a chemical splashed into Lake Eerie in Detroit can be detected days later hundreds of miles away In Buffalo. But just because something can be detected, is it harmful? Of course not.

In this case, it would be helpful to know: how much is 0.12 mg/kg?

Few of us ever deal with milligrams, indeed a lot of us aren’t used to dealing in grams. So here’s a way you can visualize it at home with just a clean flat surface and a ruler.

A 1/4 teaspoon of sugar weighs 1 gram, so put that amount on your clean flat surface.

Now shape it into an even line 4 inches long.

1 Gram over 4 Inches

Divide that line in half, and now you have 1/2 a gram, then shape that into an even line 5 inches long

One half gram over 5 inches

Separate out a 1″ portion of that line, and now you have 1/10th of a gram

One Tenth Gram

Shape that into an even line 2 1/2 inches long and then separate out just 1/4th inch of that and take that tiny bit and again shape it into an even line, 2 1/2 inches long. That’s 1/100th of a gram.

One Hundredth Gram

Separate out just 1/4th inch of that and you have 1/1000th of a gram, or 1 milligram (mg)

One Milligram

At this point your milligram should be down to about ~6 or 7 crystals of sugar.

To get to the level actually found in a kilogram of Froot Loops though you will just have to visualize from here.

Assume you powdered that 6 or 7 grains of sugar and put that tiny amount of powder into a line 2 inches long and then if you separated off just 1/4 inch of that line, that would be your 0.12 mg that is found in a kilogram (2.2 lbs) of Froot Loops® 

Now to see how much is in a serving of Froot Loops® you would have to take that last incredibly tiny quantity and divide it into 33 equal pieces, because that’s what would be in a normal sized 1 cup serving.

And that would be 0.0036 of a milligram.

So now that we know how incredibly little glyphosate is found in a serving, is the level found a reason for concern?  To answer that question consider that both the EPA and the EU have defined a level for all pesticides in our food, and it is called the Acceptable Daily Intake or ADI.

Related article:  Viewpoint: 'Heritage' of emotional decision-making fuels EU's opposition to biotech crops

The ADI is defined as: the amount of a chemical to which a person can be exposed on a daily basis over an extended period of time (usually a lifetime) without suffering a deleterious effect.

Bodnar also weighed in on the issue of potential danger levels in food as determined by mainstream science:

The EPA sets maximum safe levels of pesticide residues for crops (called tolerances), based on the latest science. These tolerances are hundreds of times higher than estimated toxic values, and they consider a person’s total exposure to pesticides (with a wide margin of error to protect children and others who may be vulnerable). The USDA tests crops each year to make sure they don’t go above the tolerances. You can find the specific tolerance information for G in the US Code of Federal Regulations, 40 CFRpart 180subpart C, section 180.364. Some of the tolerances for G were recently increased in the May 1, 2013 Federal Register, Vol. 78, No. 84.

Check out Vol. 78, No. 84 for a full explanation of EPA’s decision as well as insights into the safety of G in general. Scientific documents supporting this decision can be found in docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2012-0132. If you don’t want to dig through these dense EPA documents, you can take a look at three recent reviews that summarize the literature on glyphosate and humans: Epidemiologic studies of glyphosate and non-cancer health outcomesEpidemiologic studies of glyphosate and cancer, and Developmental and reproductive outcomes in humans and animals after glyphosate exposure.

Many activists critics claim that the evaluator framework used in the United States is too lax. Look to Europe, they say, which embraces the “precautionary principle.” Because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) actually has a more conservative limit on the Acceptable Daily Intake for glyphosate, how does the level found in a serving compare to the European ADI of 0.3 mg/kg per day?

Well, if your child weighed 20 kg (44 lbs) their ADI would be 6 mg per day and so one serving of Fruit Loops (29 grams) would then be just 1,666th of the European ADI.

So the next questions would be, is the ADI reasonable and how is the ADI set?

Well they start with testing multiple species, Rats, Mice, Dogs, Pigs and Rabbits for periods up to 2 years. They then take the lowest level that showed No Observable Effects (NOEL) in the most sensitive species they tested, and by no observable effects they mean comprehensive blood tests and microscopic examination of all key organ tissues, showing no changes.

They then divide that level by 10, assuming that humans could be 10 times more sensitive than the most sensitive species they tested, and then divide that by 10 again, assuming that the most sensitive humans could be 10 times more sensitive than the average person. Thus the ADI is set at 1/100th the level that causes no observable effects in the most sensitive species tested.

Is this being reasonable? It is, because the only observable effects they found when they force-fed rabbits at 350 mg/kg/day of glyphosate were but a slight increase in the incidence of soft stools and diarrhea, so the ADI was set based on the next lower test amount without this effect, or 175 mg/kg/day, which divided by 100 results in the FDA’s ADI of but 1.75 mg/kg/day.

Then the Maximum Residue Levels allowed on our food are set to ensure you don’t consume more than the ADI and to further ensure that you can’t possibly consume more than the ADI, they use a set of assumptions that guarantees that.

They assume that you only eat fruit and vegetables and then they assume that everything you eat will be contaminated at the Maximum Residue Levels allowed. Which helps explain why it’s nearly impossible to eat enough produce to even get near the ADI and also why the testing showed that a full serving of Froot Loops has but 1/1666 of the EFSA’s ADI for a child weighing but 44 lbs.

Clearly both the EFSA and the EPA are doing their jobs.

So, no reason for a boycott.

Well, except maybe against GMO Free USA for another misleading article.

Arthur Doucette is a retired software developer who writes on issues surrounding genetically modified organisms and agriculture.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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