Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Curious Silence: The Environmental Working Group and Mycotoxins

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tells us:

"The mission of the Environmental Working Group is to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment."  

If you look at their website, a great deal of what they do involves warning people about various "toxic risks."  They publish an annual "dirty dozen" list ranking crops by pesticide residues.  They have a major effort to identify purported risks from chemicals in cosmetics and sunscreens.  They look at toxic things in drinking water and in pet food.  They have an extensive "Chemical Index" with toxicity ratings.  But there are some very important toxins about which EWG is completely silent.

The Missing Toxins

The extremely important class of toxic chemicals that is completely absent from the EWG website is Mycotoxins.  You can go to the search engine on the site and enter words like: mycotoxin, aflatoxin, fumonisin, ochratoxin, vomitoxin... and find absolutely nothing.  What makes this silence so strange is that mycotoxins are known to be some of the most dangerous substances to which people can be exposed, particularly in food.  If one of EWG's primary purposes is to "protect public health" it seems odd that they would not say one thing on their web site about this extremely well-documented risk.

Beth Hoffman, an information technology writer, raised an interesting issue today in an article in Forbes.  She was discussing the huge disparity between what government and academic scientists say about pesticide safety and what the Environmental Working Group says with its "Dirty Dozen" list.  She says, "But at its core, the argument for and against lists like the Dirty Dozen is a question of trust."

The EWG clearly distrusts the scientific/regulatory consensus.  But should consumers trust the EWG?

Should we trust an organization that either ignores or fails to recognize a real and present risk when they are telling us that there is significant risk where science says there is not?  EWG says it "provides practical information you can use to protect your family and community."  How can we trust that statement if EWG provides zero information about chemicals which are not in the "you just never know" category, but in the "clearly documented as toxic and carcinogenic" category?

What Are Mycotoxins?

Mycotoxins are potent, natural chemicals which are produced by certain fungi.  These fungi can, under various circumstances, grow on food and feed crops either while they are growing in the field, or later during the storage and/or drying of certain commodities.  The most important example is a toxin called aflatoxin which is produced by some strains of the fungi Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.  These organisms can grow on things like peanuts, tree nuts, and corn.  It can also grow on hot chili's or figs while they are drying if that is done improperly.  It can occur in imported spices like nutmeg.  It has been found in imported chocolate.  It is thousands of times more toxic than most pesticides, and it is one of the most potent carcinogens known.  It is estimated that aflatoxin is the a major  cause of cancer deaths world wide.  Unfortunately, this mainly occurs in the third world, and even places like China are just now beginning  to address the issue.

Why Haven't Most People Heard of Aflatoxin or Other Mycotoxins

In the developed world, extraordinary efforts are made to keep food mycotoxin levels in general, and aflatoxin levels in particular, low enough to make our food safe.  The system works well enough that it does not come to the public attention very often.  This success is based on the same sort of science-based regulation and testing that are designed to insure that pesticide usage is safe.  The system of mycotoxin exclusion generally does a great job, but occasionally something slips through - mostly incidents involving pet foods or imported products from regions of the world that don't have adequate safety practices in place.

Just as an example, nut crops like peanuts and almonds can potentially become contaminated with aflatoxin, usually because of insect damage.  In our food system, the individual, shelled nuts that go into something like peanut butter or roasted almonds are put one-by-one through a light-based screening process to reject any individual nut with even the possibility of contamination.  Peanuts and other nuts sold in-the-shell cannot be screened to that degree.  EWG could instruct consumers to avoid in-the-shell nuts to protect their family. It has also been shown that eating green plants like spinach gives us chlorophyll which can bind aflatoxin in the gut so that it never gets into our blood stream.  EWG could recommend that one eats a salad with peanut butter sandwiches just to be safe.  EWG could talk about which imported foods might be most likely to have aflatoxin.  These examples would be practical guidance about real risks.  On such issues, the EWG has long been silent.   Contrast this with the proactive efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to address mycotoxin issues in the third world.  Yet this major oversight is not the only reason to distrust EWG.

A Serious Issues With the Way That EWG Does Its Analysis

An analogy might be helpful here.  Domesticated dogs come in a huge range of sizes from tiny Chihuahuas to huge Mastiffs.   They also come in a huge variety of personalities, from breeds which you could easily trust with a baby to those which have been bred for aggressiveness and which have been known to maim and kill people.  If anti-dog activists were to propose that any dog should be avoided and that people should move to towns that exclude all dogs, most people would dismiss the idea as ridiculous.  This is; however, directly analogous to what EWG does with pesticide residue data and their "solution" of buying organic.  The amounts of pesticides that the USDA finds on foods in its residue testing program can vary by 1000-fold or more - actually much more than the range of dog sizes.  The intrinsic properties of the different chemicals that are detected also differ even more than the differences between aggressiveness in breeds of dogs.  Yet what EWG does when it makes its dirty dozen list is to treat every residue detection the same.  This is just like our fictitious anti-dog activist who says that all dogs represent a equivalent risk, or that you just never know about any dog.  Why should anyone trust this method to analyze risk?

Beth, the Forbes writer, gives indications that she tends to distrust the scientific/regulatory consensus.  I wonder if she has thought about whether she should trust the EWG? Do you trust an organization uses a seriously over-simplified analysis of one category of chemicals while ignoring toxins of far greater concern?  Or might it make more sense to trust science backed up by government and academic scrutiny?

You can comment here and/or you are welcome to email me as

Aflatoxin contaminated groundnut image from IITA Image Library


  1. Please excuse me for stating the obvious: EGW recommends “organic” food and that is where mycotoxins are most likely to be found. Standard fungicides will destroy Aapegillus & Co., but the producers of “organic” food don’t use them.

    So, eat only “organic” to stay healthy?

  2. Anonymous,

    Actually since most organic is fruits and vegetables ochratoxin is more likely, but also probably rare. There is a midwestern organic apple cider company that has had two recalls for that. Organic tree nuts could be an issue because those growers would have a harder time stopping the worms that damage the immature nut hulls. In that case the insect actually acts as a carrier of Aspergillus and is amazingly tolerant to the aflatoxin. I don't know of instances where organic corn products have been found to have aflatoxin. I do know that it was found that there was a lower rate of spinabifida among children whose mothers used Bt (GMO) corn for home made tortillas (Texas Rio Grande Valley). That was because there was less of the mycotoxin, Fumonisin. These were poor people so I doubt any of them were opting for Organic instead of the GMO crop locally available

  3. This isn't surprising at all, really. EWG, GP, FoE, among others have spent a lot of time and money over the last 15 years trying to convince the public that solutions to ag problems that involve GMO and/or chemistry are worse than the problem itself. As was stated above, the beneficiary of such drivel is the organic food industry. Mycotoxins and even the risk of E. coli in improperly composted manure certainly fly in the face of the it isn't discussed.
    Look up the work of Dr. Don White from the University of Illinois (I think he's retired) about the case of the Mexican-American women living in the Rio Grande Valley who consumed 'natural' corn tortillas as a major part of their diet. They had an incidence of neural tube defects in their children at several times the national average. The cause? Fumonisin, which interferes with folic acid metabolism and can cause spina bifida and other defects.

    1. Loren,
      I have been well advised to avoid trying to guess someone else's motives, but it does seem that EWG et al have little incentive, even to take some credit for the the amazing progress in pesticide safety over the past few decades. Few of us want to work ourselves out of a job

  4. The world acc. to EWG and the like: What is natural is good. Well, what is natural cannot be all that bad, rather.

    Whereas "synthetic"--bad. Always bad.

    Hence their continual screeds against "pesticides."

    Mycotoxins are just not on EWG's agenda.

    1. Michael,
      Good point. I'm planning a post sometime about our modern bias towards anything natural. When I was a kid the pendulum had swung too far the other way. That was reflected in things like DuPont (a former employer and actually a great company) which had the slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry." There were excesses then and there are excesses now. Natural is definitely not always benign - many living things are actually engaged in "chemical warfare" and we have to be rather careful not to become non-target casualties. Aflatoxin is a prime example. The fungus makes it to kill off potential competitors.

  5. I've talked to people inside EWG about the dirty dozen list and they always tell me that they don't do the research but only parrot what they learn through the USDA and other government organizations. However, there is a world of difference between reading official reports and in their interpretation of the statistics. They could address mycotoxins I suppose but perhaps this would mean they actually would have to produce data on their own. And that is a lot of work. Plus, they bring in $6 million a year in donations and you are right, why would they "work themselves out of a job" when their Dozen Dozen list is doing so well. Fearmongering and slanting the truth to suit their own purposes is their traditional MO. Sad, but ture.

    1. Richard,
      if only they would actually work with the USDA-PDP data in a reasonable way. They choose to ignore the identity of the chemicals in question (except to look for the few OPs left), and they completely ignore the detected levels. Someone there once told me that was because we don't know what level might do something we don't know about yet. Of course, by that standard we wouldn't even eat most fruits and vegetables because they contain a very long list of natural chemicals like secondary metabolites that have never even been tested for what we do know about.

  6. I would never trust anything with the E-word in its name, those medieval shamen are insane.

    1. John,
      If you mean "environmental" as the E-word is both understand what you are saying an disagree. In my mind, real environmentalists are guided by the science. I know that many who claim that name (environmentalist) don't adhere to that, but the E-word is still legit in spite of them

  7. Interesting that there isn't one comment on here about the fact that Europe, and numerous other countries either don't want anything to do with GMOs, or they have required mandatory labeling of them. In fact, I don't see any really positive comments on here regarding organic, sustainable farming, which would lead anyone to believe that you most likely delete such comments. Most U.S. citizens want GMOs labeled.

    BTW, there are former Monsanto executives or ties to Monsanto in the FDA, Ag. Dept, and the Supreme Court. The FDA doesn't require testing for GMOs, because a former Monsanto lawyer, Michael Taylor is the FDA Deputy Commissioner of Foods.

    I think I'll stop here, because most likely you won't be posting this comment.

    1. Anon,

      I'll post your comment but it is rather off topic. You are wrong about Europe. They import huge quantities of GMO crops for animal feed. They just approved two new types last week. Their regularly agency just ruled that there was no scientific basis for the French ban on planting Bt maize. All you can really say about Europe is that politics often trumps science. Hardly a thing to imitate in an age of climate change

  8. Aaron, Phoebe and NehemiahSeptember 26, 2012 at 9:28 AM


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