WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2016 - The Food and Drug Administration plans to begin testing corn and soybeans for glyphosate residues, the agency confirmed today.

The testing was first reported by consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know, whose press release cited an article in Civil Eats by Carey Gillam, a former Reuters reporter who joined U.S. Right to Know last year.

The testing “is a good first step, but (it) must be thorough and widespread,” said U.S. Right to Know co-director Gary Ruskin. “USDA also should get on board.”

“In the wake of intense scrutiny, (FDA) has finally committed to taking this basic step of testing our food for the most commonly used pesticide. It’s shocking that it’s taken so long, but we’re glad it’s finally going to happen,” said Nathan Donley, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, the use of which has soared since the introduction in 1996 of genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant seed. A recent study in Environmental Sciences Europe estimated that agricultural use in the U.S. grew from 800,000 pounds in 1974, to 27.5 million pounds in 1995, to 250 million pounds in 2014.

Monsanto said it had not been officially informed of the testing by FDA, but that “glyphosate’s 40-year history of safe use has been upheld by the U.S. EPA and regulators around the world following decades of study and review.

“No data have ever indicated residue levels of more than a fraction of EPA’s very conservative Allowable Daily Intake or any level of concern,” the company said. “If FDA does move forward with residue testing in a scientifically rigorous manner, we are confident it will reaffirm the safe use of this vital tool used safely and effectively by farmers, landowners and homeowners around the world.”

FDA said the cost to test for glyphosate had been prohibitively expensive, but new “streamlined methods” have made it cheaper.

“The agency is now preparing plans for fiscal year 2016 to measure glyphosate in soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs, among other potential foods,” the agency said in a two-paragraph statement. 

“The FDA has not routinely looked for glyphosate in its pesticide chemical residue monitoring regulatory program in the past for several reasons, including that available methods for detecting glyphosate were selective residue methods that would have been very cost- and labor-intensive to implement in FDA field labs,” the agency said. Another reason it didn’t test is that “glyphosate levels, if present in genetically engineered corn and soybeans, are likely to be reduced by the processing done to those foods.”

Asked why it was doing the testing now, FDA said it would not comment beyond the statement.

USDA recently released its 2014 Pesticide Data Program report, which it said “confirms that overall pesticide chemical residues found on the foods tested are at levels below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency and do not pose a safety concern.”

Glyphosate was not one of the active ingredients tested, prompting calls for its inclusion. “Only once in the history of the 24-year program has the agency conducted tests for glyphosate residues,” U.S. Right to Know said. “Those tests, in 2011, were limited to 300 soybean samples and found that 271 of the samples had glyphosate residues.”

Peter Wood, a spokesman for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, characterized those results differently. The 2011 tests, which also looked for glyphosate metabolite AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid), “showed that no samples exceeded the tolerance for glyphosate.”

The range of levels found was 0.26 parts per million to 18.5 ppm. The mean for the detections was 1.97 parts per million. At the time, the tolerance for soybeans was 20 ppm; in 2013, EPA raised that to 40 ppm.

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Asked why USDA does not routinely test for glyphosate, Wood said, “USDA and EPA specialists discuss the selection of commodities and pesticides for testing. With USDA’s scientific input and EPA’s data needs, EPA makes the determination which commodities and pesticides are tested.”

Wood said EPA is waiting on the results of the FDA testing “before making the determination if additional data is needed for its ongoing evaluation of glyphosate tolerances to ensure that the levels set by EPA meet the safety standards prescribed by the law.”

EPA was expected to issue a new risk assessment for glyphosate last summer, but has yet to do so.

In a November 2014 report, the Government Accountability Office criticized FDA for not disclosing in its annual monitoring reports “that it does not test for several commonly used pesticides with an EPA-established tolerance,” including glyphosate.

Glyphosate has been a target of food safety and environmental groups for decades. Last year, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that the chemical was probably carcinogenic to humans, a designation that would trigger labeling as a carcinogen by California’s Proposition 65.

Monsanto released a preliminary scientific review disputing the IARC monograph, and is now suing the state of California over its proposal to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list.