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Weedkiller found in some ‘natural’ Bigelow tea, lawsuit says

YVES HERMAN | REUTERS
YVES HERMAN | REUTERS
Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller atomizers are displayed for sale at a garden shop near Brussels, Belgium, Nov. 27, 2017.
By Shruti Date Singh, Bloomberg

The glyphosate tempest is coming to your teacup.

The world’s most widely used herbicide, which is at the center of an intense debate over whether it poses a cancer risk, has been found in samples of green tea produced and marketed as “natural” by R.C. Bigelow Inc., according to a lawsuit filed by the Organic Consumers Association on Dec. 15. Bigelow is the No. 2 U.S. tea brand by retail value, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

Bigelow’s internal test showed when the tea is brewed the level is “absolutely zero,” R.C. Bigelow Inc. CEO Cindi Bigelow, whose grandmother founded the company, said. The claims are “frivolous,” she said in an interview before the lawsuit was filed.

“It’s illogical,” she said.

The advocacy group, whose agenda includes fair trade and an end to genetically engineered foods and crops, said in the lawsuit that Fairfield, Connecticut-based Bigelow made “deceptive” claims to tap consumers willing to pay more for products seen as healthier and more environmentally friendly.

Tests conducted by an independent lab on “Bigelow Classic Green Tea” purchased at a Wal-Mart Stores location in Washington revealed 0.38 parts per million of glyphosate, according to the lawsuit. The presence of the herbicide, which the company didn’t disclose, make the “natural” claims false, according to the lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Washington. The findings of the group’s test are below the federal tolerance level for dried tea of 1 ppm.

The findings the Organic Consumers Association claims in its lawsuit are far below the government’s threshold for dried leaves, which is lower than other foods, Cindi Bigelow said. Carrots are allowed up to 5 ppm, barley as much as 30 ppm and certain grains 100 ppm, according to government standards.

The company has itself tested for glyphosate in response to a customer inquiry and found levels for dried tea “far below” both the government’s limit and the association’s finding, she said. Additionally, there is a distinction between dry tea, which is what the OCA’s claim is based on, and a cup of brewed tea with water, she added.

The company meets federal regulation and it tries to be responsive to consumers’ needs by conducting ongoing testing for a variety of substances, the CEO added. The association is “establishing their own standards,” she said.

While glyphosate, commonly known through Monsanto’s brand Roundup, has helped to increase crop yields and reduce the backbreaking work of killing weeds for farmers, health concerns have plagued it for years, particularly in Europe. France and Belgium are trying to ban it domestically after a contested European Union decision to re-authorize its use for another five years.

Booming growth for organic and natural products has also raised questions over how well products live up to their claims. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General in a September report found the agency hasn’t figured out how to make sure imports sprayed for insects at ports don’t get labeled organic.

Bigelow is “able to sell a greater volume of the products, to charge higher prices for the products, and to take away market share from” competitors by “deceiving consumers” about the nature, quality and ingredients of its tea, the lawsuit states.

The plaintiff is asking for an “injunction to halt Bigelow’s false marketing and sale of the products,” according to the lawsuit.

Bigelow tea wouldn’t be the first product to have traces of glyphosate. After widespread use over the last several decades, traces have been detected in cookies, honey and even human urine and breast milk.

Other lawsuits regarding traces of the herbicide in granola bars and honey have been dismissed. Cindi Bigelow said she doesn’t expect the association’s claims against her company’s tea to hold up in court either.

“Hundreds of scientific studies over 40 years have determined that glyphosate is safe for use, and no regulatory agency in the world has concluded that glyphosate is carcinogenic,” Scott Partridge, vice president of strategy for Monsanto, said in an emailed statement Monday. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s “flawed classification is the sole outlier,” he said.

Glyphosate, along with genetically modified seeds, has helped increase the productivity of large-scale agriculture since the weedkiller’s introduction in the 1970s, particularly in the U.S. The herbicide is marketed by more than 40 companies under various names after being patented initially and sold under the brand Roundup by Monsanto Co. It’s used to kill weeds from wheat fields to vineyards to olive orchards.

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