Last week news broke about 14 of some of the most popular German beer brands being contaminated with pesticides.
The Munich Environmental Institute (Umweltinstitut München) revealed the results of a study showing that traces of the weed killer glyphosate have been found in 14 different beer brands. The glyphosate levels were in several cases much higher than the legal limit value for drinking water. Glyphosate is a herbicide that is suspected to be carcinogenic – according to WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), as Deutschlandfunk.de reported.
When Maik wrote about the story in his blog “Not Pure After All: German Beers Contaminated With Pesticides”, we were still waiting for the beer industry to respond.
In the days since the story first broke, we have seen news of another study about glyphosate in Germany, we have several news articles looking at all aspects of the story and we also have the response of the German Brewers Association (Deutscher Brauer-Bund).
A clear picture emerges
News stories have been critical of the study and its results. The methodology has been criticized, since it’s unclear whether the results are generalizable for the beer brands and their contamination levels. And the overblown “fear-mongering” of the Munich Environmental Institute has been criticized. The point is that the glyphosate concentrations found in 14 beers are so low, that a person could consume several hundreds of liters without danger of pesticide contamination.
Another study has been recently published, that found that 75% of Germans were found to have the herbicide glyphosate in their urin. The highest levels of contamination were found in young children below the age of 9. Also this study has received some criticism for its conclusions.
There is also disagreement whether glyphosate causes cancer in humans or not. The World Health Organization’s special agency for cancer research, the IARC, deems it highly likely that glyphosate is carcinogenic. The German Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment) however finds that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. When reporting on this issue in the recent days, journalists, unfortunately, usually forget to mention that the BfR might have a conflict of interest since companies that earn profits from glyphosate are part of the BfR research team.
The picture is clear, and not. Consumers are left wondering whether or not glyphosate causes cancer. But what we know is that pesticides like glyphosate find their ways into alcohol products and into food and drinks.
The important take-away, according to us, is not whether or not German beers might be contaminated with a carcinogen, used to kill weed. German beer is in itself causing cancer because of ethanol, i.e. alcohol. The take-away is that quite obviously German beer is not as “pure” as the alcohol industry wants everyone to believe.
German Brewers Association misrepresents facts
That’s why it was so interesting to read the statement of the Deutscher Brauer-Bund.
First of all they claim that glyphosate in groceries has been proven to be risk-free – but fail to mention that the IARC finds glyphosate to be a likely carcinogen. They also claim that they trust “independent scientists at the BfR” – but BfR scientist are on the payroll of major corporations such as Bayer and BASF.
The biggest argument that the lobby organisation uses is their own “monitoring system” and self-control by the brewers. The same companies that have been fined for price fixing in Germany, the same companies that are targeting children and youth with their marketing are supposed to be reliable and trustworthy to policy themselves? In the Q&A section of their statement, the Brewers Association seems to contradict itself: they boast about their monitoring system only to state later on that they don’t manage to safeguard the quality of 50% of their raw material.
And the raw material really is the core of the whole story. The raw material is all about the Reinheitsgrebot (law of beer purity). Hop, malt, yeast and water – the only ingredients allowed for brewing German beer. That’s what the alcohol industry wants us all to believe.
The story about glyphosate shows a different reality. Pesticides find their way into beer. The brewers’ own “monitoring system” – as the they indirectly admit themselves – is not good enough in securing German standards because much of the raw material comes from abroad.
Reinheitsgebot a marketing tool, not a seal of quality
But the German Brewers Association keeps boasting the beer purity law of 1516. They actually write (my own translation):
What is regulated by the purity law?
In contrast to breweries in Europe, German breweries are only allowed to brew according to the purity law, using no artificial flavoring or coloring agents, no artificial stabilizers, no enzymes, and no preservatives. Brewing beer remains limited to the use of the four natural ingredients water, malt, hop and yeast. All raw material is subject to regular and extensive checks concerning contamination in all production steps.”
A simple look to wikipedia exposes this statement as quite blunt misrepresentation of the facts: The beer purity law is not in force any longer as a legal norm. In 1993 the Biergesetz (beer law) came into force. Since then it is permitted to use more ingredients in the brewing process, as long as they are extracted again in the end of the production. The Reinheitsgrebot is an alcohol industry myth. Wikipedia writes:
The revised Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional Beer Law) of 1993, which replaced the earlier regulations, is a slightly expanded version of the Reinheitsgebot, stipulating that only water, malted barley, hops and yeast be used for any bottom-fermented beer brewed in Germany. In addition, the law allows the use of powdered or ground hops and hops extracts, as well as stabilization and fining agents such as PVPP. Top fermented beer is subject to the same rules with the addition that a wider variety of malt can be used as well as pure sugars for flavor and coloring
A popular ZDF documentary explores the beer production process further and adds more details (German, watch from minute 20:00).
For example, brewers today use the plastic PVPP for making beer in the gigantic amounts that major breweries produce. Beer is a high-tech product and the brewing process is nothing like it used to be 500 years ago. Alcohol producers need to use more ingredients to speed up the brewing process, to keep the quality of the product for global transport and for long-time storage, and to cut costs and increase profits.
More than 60 other ingredients are permitted to be used in the brewing process today. And their use is a matter of cost-cutting and profit-making for the alcohol industry.
- Caramel color.
- Active coal,
- Seaweed meal,
- Hydrocyanic acid,
- Calcium sulfate,
- Bentonite, etc.
The caveat is that none of these substances are supposed to be found in the final product. I’m eft wondering, having on mind the glyphosate saga, how sure consumer can be that really none of the quite ugly ingredients ends up in the final product. But that is not even the main issue. The final product, in this case beer, is dangerous enough because of its ethanol content – it is toxic, addictive, carcinogenic and teratogen. The main issue is that we know that the German brewers do not communicate honestly about their products.
They use what 500 years ago stood for quality, today as a mere marketing tool and for profit-making purposes.