Written By Wiley A. Hall, 4th, Ph.D.

Recently there has been a heavy focus on pesticides throughout the United States and the World, specifically on glyphosate. While pesticides are used to protect food and consumers from various diseases, there are also serious environmental and health concerns associated with them. If you keep up with the news, chances are you’ve heard a lot recently about glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide and plant growth regulator Roundup®. Because this topic is being talked about so frequently, and not always by the scientific community, I thought it would be helpful to provide some insight.

To Start, What Is Glyphosate?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), glyphosate is a widely used herbicide that controls broadleaf weeds, grasses, sedges, and woody plants. Registered by the EPA in the United States in 1974, the pesticide has had a long history in agriculture and continues to be re-evaluated by the agency as the industry changes.

Because we use glyphosate on so many types of plants, it is present in more than 750 products in the United States alone. This herbicide is used by being applied to the leaves of plants to kill them off. One important note is that glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, which means that if you use it on a group of plants, all of them are at risk of dying.

While there are many forms of glyphosate, the sodium salt form, which can be used to regulate plant growth and also ripen specific crops, is prevalent. The pesticide also comes in different types that can be either solids or an amber-colored liquid.

As food processors and manufacturers continue to learn more about this herbicide, it is essential to stay familiar with the EPA and California Department of Pesticide Regulation guidelines for use. For more questions and answers on glyphosate, visit the FDA’s website here.

Glyphosate In the News

In August 2018, a jury awarded $289 million to a former groundskeeper who claimed that exposure to Roundup® caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This heavily publicized case was quickly followed by a report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which found that 31 out of 45 of the conventionally-grown cereals being tested “…had glyphosate levels higher than what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health with an adequate margin of safety.”

According to the EWG report, glyphosate levels in cereals must remain under 0.01 milligrams or a concentration of 160 ppb (part-per-billion). Levels above this benchmark standard were reported to cause increased health concerns for consumers.

The EWG report authors reached a consumption limit of 0.01 milligrams per day by applying a 100x safety factor to California’s Proposition 65 No Significant Risk Level (NSRL) for glyphosate (1.1 mg/day). This NSRL under Proposition 65 itself represents a more than a 100x reduction from the acceptable daily intakes (ADIs) set by both the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) after their reviews of the toxicity data for glyphosate. In other words, the Environmental Working Group set a “safety limit” that was 10,000-fold below the risk-based limits set by EPA and WHO! 

What Does the Industry Think?

The European Commission is famously cautious when it comes to setting pesticide residue limits. Even using the safe intake level set by the Commission – consuming 0.3 mg of glyphosate per kg of body weight per day-a person would have to weigh less than one-tenth of a pound to stay under the EWG benchmark.

Studies such as the EWG report raise the anxiety level for consumers trying to feed their families a healthy diet. As a result, that concern is filtering up through retailers, meaning if it hasn’t already reached you, it will soon. As with most regulatory issues in agriculture, preparation is key. One step is to consider testing for glyphosate residues now so that you’re pre-armed with the data your customers will demand.

How is Glyphosate Tested?

The first thing to know about glyphosate testing is that, even though it is one of the most commonly used pesticides in the US (and the world), general pesticide residue screens do not include it. With modern techniques and instrumentation, a multi-residue screen can cover over 300 compounds, but the chemical nature of glyphosate (high polarity/water solubility) makes it distinct from the vast majority of commonly applied pesticides. That means a specialized test is needed to be able to detect it.

The good news is that the specific formulation of glyphosate used (isopropylamine salt, sodium salt, etc.) does not affect the analysis needed. It is, however, important to know the residue definition for your specific market and commodity. For instance, the residue definition for glyphosate in wheat for the US and the EU requires that you only measure the amount of glyphosate in the product. Codex, on the other hand, requires that you also measure the amount of N-acetylglyphosate, which is a metabolite of glyphosate; Australia requires glyphosate, N-acetylglyphosate, and AMPA (another metabolite).  Make sure the testing lab you use is measuring the correct compounds for your needs. 

To monitor the FDA updates on glyphosate, use FDA’s Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program Reports & Data.

Before You Test, Ensure Your Third-Party Lab’s Methods are Validated

The last thing that’s important when testing for glyphosate is to make sure that the laboratory doing your testing has previously validated their method for your commodity or commodity group. Many of the methods for glyphosate analysis, including the official EU QuPPE method, have not been validated for tree nuts, avocado, animal products, or other high-fat matrices. Safe Food Alliance offers glyphosate analysis for most agricultural commodities grown in California (including tree nuts); either by itself, or as part of our Polar Pesticide Screen, which also includes glufosinate, ethephon, paraquat, diquat, mepiquat, and chlormequat. 

Testing with Safe Food Alliance

When you work with Safe Food Alliance, not only are you choosing an ELAP and USDA certified laboratory which specializes in California specialty produce, you are choosing a company who cares.

Our state-of-the-art laboratory offers a comprehensive, ISO accredited, full-service chemistry department with everything you need to test your products for pesticides like glyphosate successfully. Continually evolving to create more services that make your job easier, we now offer an Omni screen which examines more than 400 compounds at one time, as well as commodity-specific screens, specially designed for the product you create.

To start working with a lab who cares about your success as much as their own, contact Annette Magee, Director of Business Development, at annettem@safefoodalliance.com.