Oats will harm you or save you, depending on who you believe

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A report from the Environmental Working Group on Wednesday said it found dangerous amounts of the herbicide glyphosate in a range of popular foods, from PepsiCo's Quaker Old Fashioned Oats to General Mills' Cheerios. But the marketers named say their products are well within EPA guidelines, leaving consumers to try to sort it out.

It's too early to say how much damage the report could do to such venerable brands. After all, Quaker and Cheerios are household names, but the Environmental Working Group is far from it. By Wednesday evening, just 2,200 people had shared the group's Facebook post on the subject.

"The challenge here is that the story seems pretty clear: Glyphosate is bad, and it is in a lot of food products," says Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

"If only from a defensive perspective, this has to be a significant issue for food manufacturers like General Mills and Kellogg," Caklins says.

What's going on?

Glyphosate, found in Monsanto's widely-used pesticide Roundup, was called "probably carcinogenic" by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015. Meanwhile, other published studies suggest it is safe.

Last week a jury in California ordered Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) to pay $289 million in damages to Dewayne Johnson, who is dying of cancer after exposure to Roundup and other weed killers during his tenure as a school groundskeeper. (CNN and others covered it in detail.)

The Washington, D.C.-based EWG, a research and advocacy group, says it found the highest levels of glyphosate in two samples of Quaker Old Fashioned Oats. Some Cheerios and Quaker Dinosaur Eggs Brown Sugar instant oatmeal also tested high. So did Giant instant oatmeal, Back to Nature classic granola and some other items.

What's high? Well, the EWG suggests kids shouldn't be exposed to more than 160 parts per billion per day (ppb). Three tests of Quaker Old Fashioned Oats generated an average of 930 ppb, three tests of Cheerios generated an average of 497 ppb, and that Dinosaur Eggs version of instant oatmeal had two tests with an average of 700 ppb, the EWG says.

Dispute over standards

The brands are downplaying the report.

Quaker says it stands by the safety and quality of its products and that any levels of glyphosate found in its products are "significantly below" any regulatory limits and "well within compliance" of standards set by the EPA and the European Food Safety Authority. General Mills says its products are safe and meet safety regulations. "The EPA has researched this issue and has set rules that we follow as do farmers who grow crops including wheat and oats," the company says. "We continue to work closely with farmers, our suppliers and conservation organizations to minimize the use of pesticides on the crops and ingredients we use in our foods."

Perhaps not surprisingly, those kinds of comments weren't sufficient for the EWG, which fired back.

"We are deeply disappointed by the tone-deaf response of General Mills and the Quaker Oats Company to the news that EWG research has found a toxic weed killer in their products at levels of concern to human health—especially the health of kids," EWG President Ken Cook said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "Simply stated, there is far too much glyphosate in their products for parents to feel comfortable feeding them to their kids."

He went on to say that the standards set by the EPA "pose real health risks to Americans—particularly children, who are more sensitive to the effects of toxic chemicals than adults."

Plenty of other companies got back to Ad Age with similar statements backing the safety of their products. Kellogg, for example, said its food is safe and that the ingredients it buys from suppliers fall under the EPA's "strict standards for safe levels of these agricultural residues."

Some products were found to have no detectable glyphosate or low levels, but the vast majority of those tested did have some. Even some organic products had traces, likely from pesticides flying through the air.

Nature's Path had none detected in a variety of granola, but a small amount in a version of organic oats.

The company believes "that the pesticide companies must be held accountable for contaminating the general environment, and specifically organic farms," Nature's Path co-CEO Arran Stephens says. "It is for this reason that Nature's Path recently purchased more than 5,500 acres of pristine farmland to safeguard our own organic oat production."

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