New York Times Article Resembles Press Release

The New York Times (NYT) recently published a news story headlined “Traces of Controversial Herbicide Are Found in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream” regarding the implications of less than two parts per billion of glyphosate, an ingredient of herbicide, allegedly found in several types of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Factual verification and analysis provides a different view of the news story.

Fact Checking

The Times largely ignored collective interests and relationships, but many of the individuals and organizations of the article are collaborators or allies. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), the initiator of the testing for ice cream is noted for their militant opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crops; campaigns against Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks and Monsanto, among others; and representing organic interests. John Fagan of HRI Laboratories is well known for opposing GE crops and his associated labeling and laboratory initiatives. Michael Antoniou is another long standing GE opponent and has collaborated with John Fagan on a book hostile to GE crops and glyphosate. David Schubert is another opponent of GE and has previously defended the Antoniou and predecessor studies. The organic organization, Regeneration Vermont, has worked with the OCA pressuring Ben & Jerry’s to switch to organic ingredients. The reporting includes a graph detailing points of opposition for glyphosate by Charles Benbrook, a prominent proponent of organic farming. The article identified Greg Lickteig as a “Director” while the website of his company indicated “Director of Organic Feed Grains & Ingredients”, an important contextual difference. In addition, Carey Gillam and her forthcoming book against glyphosate were prominently promoted, although the article did not note she is employed by USRTK and funding is provided by the OCA.

The rebuttals in the article were limited to a statement by an apologetic and anti GE representative of Ben and Jerry’s, Monsanto’s characterizations for two of several studies mentioned as well as unnamed criticisms. Factual criticisms were brief, anonymous and without scientific credentials in stark contrast to the collaborators or allies identified.

The article does not identify the documentation normally provided to ensure confidence in laboratory testing results relevant for the lengthy and complicated processes required. The Times did not recall the erroneous testing results used by other organizations with an anti GE and glyphosate agenda claiming mothers’ milk had glyphosate residues and generating unnecessary fears until experts at Washington State University and public agencies from Germany and New Zealand proved them wrong.

Groups of scientists and the leading biosafety agencies of the world, including the European biosafety and chemical agencies as well as the regulatory agencies of the U.S., Canada and New Zealand rejected, often vehemently, the conclusion of the working group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The NYT indicated there was disagreement within the World Health Organization (WHO), but the WHO clarified the IARC findings concerned limited evidence of an occupational hazard and exposure levels in tests were well beyond those presenting food consumption risks. Specifically, the May 2016 Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues stated “In view of the absence of carcinogenic potential in rodents at human-relevant doses and the absence of genotoxicity by the oral route in mammals, and considering the epidemiological evidence from occupational exposures, the Meeting concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.”

The IARC finding is inconsistent with all major public agencies, including the European Chemicals Agency which uses the same type of hazard analysis. The news report emphasized an evident outlier at the expense of the current state of scientific consensus.

The samples for pathological and other analysis in the Michael Antoniou study which alleged a relationship between a low dose of glyphosate and fatty liver diseases were obtained from a republished study unnamed by the NYT, but known as the “Seralini study” when rejected by a variety of national and multinational scientific groups or public agencies. In addition, a nine member panel of the European Society of Toxicologic Pathology used the words “unprofessional”, “misinterpretations” and “misuse” as well as questioning the basis for publishing.

The Antoniou paper was subjected to a brief analysis by Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley and she concluded: “The problems in experimental design, lack of supporting pathology data on the test subjects, and wildly subjective over interpretation of the results should have been grounds for soundly rejecting this manuscript.”

A peer review by four Monsanto scientists of the Antoniou study summarized: “After looking at the latest study by Mesnage et al. (including Antoniou) through a scientific lens, it became clear that the authors’ conclusions are not supported by the data. The study suffers from small sample size, a high level of variability because of numerous confounding factors, and an over-interpretation of the data, including ignoring their own statistical findings in an effort to establish biological relevance when there is none.”

The news story includes a Schubert reference to a confirmation for the Antoniou conclusion and the low dose hypothesis in an analysis by the Nomura Lab at the University of California, Berkeley which administered high doses of glyphosate intraperitoneally for which there is no apparent relation to Antoniou study using low glyphosate doses in drinking water. In fact, the Nomura study resembles more the animal research (Oncotarget) performed by the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium in which cancerous tumors were inhibited using high doses of glyphosate as a therapeutic agent.

The “fact checking” identified only information easily found without entering into further depth or reviewing the implications of other studies; e.g., the conclusions of the U.S. and European regulatory agencies indicating there is no evidence indicating glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor.

Analysis & Conclusion

The headline and story writing skills of Stephanie Strom, the Times writer provides a reporting package enticing for readers. However, the news story probably would not have been published using a factual approach and standard terminology with a headline and opening text indicating “the alleged testing results are less than two-thousandths of a part per million and are orders of magnitude below major public agency regulatory food safety limits for the amount which can be consumed daily during a lifetime”.

The reporting balance is significantly biased by the extraordinary prominence given the activist oriented confluence of individuals and organizations with ideological and business interests against glyphosate, genetically engineered foods and non-organic foods including those labeled as natural foods.

The biased journalistic balance combined with obvious speculation regarding alleged testing results, a nonexistent cancer threat and a fatty liver theory with an inapplicable confirmation resembles a better than average activist press release. The NYT reporting did not have news significance, journalistic balance, credible or unbiased sources nor an accurate presentation of scientific facts. These failings were magnified by the use of their “respectable platform” to spread baseless fears to other media organizations.

The Times should accept responsibility for its news reporting and implement pre-publishing procedures which preclude these types of news reports. However, this recommendation is pointless without identifying and changing the motivation for publishing an obviously biased and inaccurate news report.

Conflict of Interest: The author has operated an isolated eco-lodge for 28 years on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica and has no conflict of interest.