California recently added the herbicide glyphosate to Proposition 65, legislation that requires businesses to provide warning labels. Here's the lowdown on what it means for your business.

Jenna Blumenfeld, Freelancer

July 21, 2017

7 Min Read
How California classified glyphosate as a carcinogen (and what it means for you)

If you’ve ever had time to wander toward downtown Disney in Southern California during Natural Products Expo West, amid the theme restaurants and thunder of celebratory fireworks, you’ve likely seen something a little sinister in The Happiest Place On Earth: signs warning that cancer-causing chemicals have been used nearby.

Such warnings are posted in California thanks to a landmark piece of legislation called Proposition 65, the 1986-established law designed to protect the state’s drinking water from toxic chemical contamination. Also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (or simply Prop 65), the legislation requires that “the Governor revise and republish at least once per year the list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.” Pursuant to the law, businesses are also required to provide warnings about possible exposure to such chemicals through proper labels and/or signage. The idea is to empower Californians to make informed decisions about the products they buy and the companies they patron.

Prop 65’s list is comprehensive, containing around 900 naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals such as household products, foods, dyes, drugs, solvents and pesticides. Alcohol is on there too. As of July 7, 2017, glyphosate, one of the most contentious pesticides in the food industry, has been added to the list.

A quick recap of glyphosate’s importance to some modern farmers: glyphosate is the main active chemical in the widely used Monsanto-owned weed killer, Roundup. Many large-scale agricultural operations use Roundup to cultivate their genetically engineered commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and canola designed to withstand glyphosate sprayings. In a nutshell, farmers are able to liberally apply Roundup to their fields to kill weeds while sparing crops. Not surprisingly, Monsanto is adamant that glyphosate “does not present an unreasonable risk of adverse effects to humans, wildlife or the environment.”

But according to the state of California, there is enough evidence to label glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. Back in 2015, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) first announced intent to place glyphosate on Prop 65’s list following publication of a critical monograph by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The monograph provided a detailed examination of published research investigating the connection between glyphosate exposure and cancer in both humans and animals. The report cited over 270 studies, and ultimately concluded there is limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate (but possibly a connection to non-Hodgkin lymphoma) and “sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.”

As Prop 65 specifically says possible carcinogens in humans or animals should contain consumer warnings, IARC’s conclusion sparked OEHHA to announce glyphosate would be added to the list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer on March 28, 2017. 

Monsanto steps in

Monsanto wasn’t going to let its flagship herbicide ingredient be slapped with a mandatory cancer-causing warning label without a fight, however. Soon after OEHHA said they would place glyphosate on Prop 65’s list, Monsanto hit the organization with a lawsuit, suspending the chemical in limbo for three months.

The lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful in the trial court (Monsanto immediately requested for a stay in the pending case, which was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeal), but Monsanto then filed a petition with the OEHHA to reconsider the classification of glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen,” noting that IARC failed to consider 2013 data that found no evidence of a link between glyphosate and cancer. The data set was garnered from the Agricultural Health Study (AHS), a large study of farmworkers and their families. The AHS’s 2013 work was not considered by IARC in its examination of glyphosate due to one very important factor: the data was unpublished, making it ineligible for IARC to consider in its 2015 monograph.

OEHHA’s response to Monsanto was snarky. “Monsanto complains that IARC, pursuant to its own rules, only considered published, peer-reviewed studies when making the glyphosate determination in 2015, and contends that the IARC finding was erroneous because it did not consider certain unpublished data,” the organization wrote in a letter dated June 26, 2017. “Unless and until IARC changes its classification of glyphosate, this request for OEHHA to reconsider its listing decision is premature. Monsanto's request is denied.”

Legal-speak equivalent of a mic drop.

Implications for the food industry

The consequences of glyphosate’s addition to Prop 65 may complicate food labeling for the natural products industry. For years, experts have called for more regulations around this herbicide in part due to its ubiquity.

According to IARC’s monograph, glyphosate is everywhere. It leaches into groundwater and air. It’s in our food and it's in us. Glyphosate sprayings have dramatically increased over the past decade. 2016 research published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe found that globally, glyphosate use rose 15-fold since Roundup Ready crops were introduced in 1996. Since 1974, the U.S. alone sprayed over 1.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate. (Check out this visual representation of glyphosate’s estimate use from the U.S. Geological Survey.) More regulation might stem the systemic overuse of glyphosate. 

Must natural companies include a warning label on their product packaging to comply with Prop 65 and avoid the $2,500 per day penalty? Maybe. Glyphosate residues have been found on fruits and vegetables, bread, tofu and more, but are these residues harmful? For around 300 chemicals on Prop 65’s list, OEHHA established safe harbor levels—thresholds that identify “a level of exposure to a listed chemical that does not require a Proposition 65 warning,” says OEHHA. But the organization has not yet created a safe harbor level for glyphosate.

Some experts believe glyphosate’s addition to Prop 65 will radically influence natural product labeling. “This will immediately have an impact on our industry, from supplements to food and more,” says Tim Avila, president of System BioSciences. “It shines a very big light on the business because if [glyphosate] is found, you have to confront warning labels.”

Even USDA Organic brands aren’t totally safe from potential warning labels, as the USDA Organic seal is a systems-based agricultural standard, meaning that most organic operations do not test for glyphosate or other synthetic chemicals. Organic farmers take meticulous steps to mitigate glyphosate contamination on their farms, but if the herbicide drifts from a neighboring non-organic farm or glyphosate-contaminated rain drizzles over an organic farmer’s field, organic ingredients could test positive for glyphosate (although the risk is significantly lower than conventional ingredients). 

Companies in California have several options. First, it’s important to note that all brands have a year from now to decide what to do in relation to glyphosate warnings. Additionally, businesses with less than 10 employees are exempt from Prop 65’s warning requirements. Businesses are also exempt from warning requirements if they can prove their products do not contain glyphosate, or if levels are so low they pose no significant risk of cancer, which OEHHA defines somewhat confusingly, "as the level of exposure that would result in not more than one excess case of cancer in 100,000 individuals exposed to the chemical over a 70-year lifetime." 

Avila’s suggestion? “Food companies should start testing their products.” If your product tests positive for glyphosate, you may want to re-examine your supply chain, and work with suppliers and farmers to see where glyphosate pollution is occurring.

Prop 65 can be a pain for food companies. Some brands are already frustrated by what they call Prop 65 a well intentioned, but poorly written law. Sunfood Superfoods, for example, features ample information on their website about the shortfalls of this legislation. "Prop 65 does not offer a solution. It doesn’t limit the amount of 'cancer-causing' chemicals that can be put in a product, just that the warning be carried if levels are exceeded. It also doesn’t mandate disclosing which chemicals are in the product." When you put so much effort into clean, conscious sourcing, having to put a warning label on your product seems like a slap in the face. 

But little has been done to stem rampant spraying of glyphosate for nearly two decades. By linking its genetically engineered seeds with the herbicide, Monsanto accelerated glyphosate usage across the globe. For too long glyphosate has infiltrated supply chains, contaminating our earth and our air and our water. The core tenet of all natural food brands should be to provide customers with clean, healthy, nourishing food—and ensure a future where ingredient integrity is still attainable. The natural industry should support the recent addition to Prop 65 because it's the catalyst to slow glyphosate pollution—accidental or otherwise—from our food system.

About the Author(s)

Jenna Blumenfeld


Jenna Blumenfeld lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she reports on the natural products industry, sustainable agriculture, and all things plant based. 

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