Monsanto's Role in Roundup Safety Study Is Corrected by Journal

(Bloomberg) -- Bayer AG’s defense of Roundup weed killer may take a hit after an academic journal said Monsanto Co. didn’t fully disclose its involvement in published research finding the herbicide safe.

A correction issued by Critical Reviews in Toxicology, a journal that analyzes health risks of chemicals, may bolster arguments that Monsanto, acquired by Bayer this year, ghost-wrote safety reviews as lawyers try to convince juries that Roundup causes cancer.

Monsanto has defended the independence of the 2016 review, and the journal isn’t changing the papers’ scientific findings. But the journal’s publisher said Wednesday it’s issuing an “Expression of Concern” linked to the articles because the authors “have been unable to provide an adequate explanation to why the required level of transparency was not met on first submission.”

Allegations that Monsanto ghostwrote scientific literature to rebut claims that a key chemical in Roundup causes cancer, and emails supporting them, were featured at the first trial over the herbicide resulting in a $289 million verdict against the company in August.

“The correction in itself it might not be that big a deal if the plaintiffs’ lawyers have the dirt on Monsanto,” said Thomas G. Rohback, a trial lawyer who isn’t involved in the Roundup litigation. “What’s more telling is the nature and extent of the involvement, and the reason for the misstatement.”

‘Non-Substantive’

Monsanto spokesman Sam Murphy wrote in an email that the articles in question are “a small part of an extensive body of research” showing glyphosate-based herbicides are safe. The company’s influence on the articles was “non-substantive,” such as providing formatting assistance and giving a history of regulatory overview, Murphy said. “The scientific conclusions are those of the authors and the authors alone.”

Bayer faces litigation by more than 9,500 plaintiffs in the U.S., mostly farmers, who blame exposure to glyphosate for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The next trial may be sometime between December and February.

The correction stems from the journal’s requirement that any potential author conflicts must be disclosed. The initial disclosure statement indicated Monsanto’s involvement was limited to paying a consulting firm to develop the journal supplement entitled “An Independent Review of the Carcinogenic Potential of Glyphosate.” It declared that no Monsanto employees or attorneys reviewed manuscripts submitted to the journal.

Internal Emails

Internal emails filed in litigation revealed that Monsanto scientists were heavily involved in organizing, reviewing, and editing article drafts.

“Although I’m glad the journal is now on record finding that they were misled when publishing these articles, a retraction is more than warranted for this situation,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group. “Furthermore the journal appears to be allowing the phrase ‘an independent review’ to remain in the title of the issue. There is nothing independent about this review by any stretch of the imagination.”

Critical Reviews in Toxicology agreed with authors to correct the disclosure statements for three of the supplement’s articles, Elaine Devine, a spokeswoman for the journal, said in an email. She said the authors couldn’t agree by a deadline on disclosures about two other articles.

The Expression of Concern “will remain on the scholarly record,” she said in the email.

Corrections are appropriate when “the author/contributor list is incorrect” but “there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings,” according to guidelines issued by the Committee on Publication Ethics, a Britain-based nonprofit. An Expression of Concern is warranted, the guidelines say, when evidence of author misconduct is “inconclusive,” or when “there is evidence that the findings are unreliable, but the authors’ institution will not investigate the case.”

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