Soylent and Proposition 65

Lots of people have been gleefully reposting links to a PR Newswire press release from a group who are suing the makers of Soylent for failing to comply with California’s Proposition 65.

Test results commissioned by As You Sow, conducted by an independent laboratory, show that one serving of Soylent 1.5 can expose a consumer to a concentration of lead that is 12 to 25 times above California’s Safe Harbor level for reproductive health, and a concentration of cadmium that is at least 4 times greater than the Safe Harbor level for cadmium. Two separate samples of Soylent 1.5 were tested.

Which sounds terrible, until you look at how California’s Safe Harbor levels compare with ordinary food:

When the State of California conducted a soil-lead-uptake analysis of its own soil, from 70 different locations, they found that most vegetables averaged four times the Prop 65 lead limits.

That’s according to Dr. Edward F. Group III. But let’s get some more definitive information…

You can check out cadmium and lead levels for common foods from an FDA study, and there’s a spreadsheet with comparisons to Soylent that’s linked from the Soylent Proposition 65 disclosure FAQ page. The cadmium exposure from Soylent 1.5, while relatively high, is equivalent to eating two cups of spinach.

Compare with European standards for acceptable lead and cadmium exposure. Europe allows cadmium levels of up to 3mg/kg for seaweed-derived products, and 1mg/kg for many other foods including kidney meat and some seafoods. Soylent’s level is 0.186mg/kg, which is safely under the limit for wheat, rice and soybeans. (Rice is a major ingredient of Soylent.)

Similarly, Europe’s standards for acceptable lead exposure go up to 1.5mg/kg for some seafoods. Soylent’s level is 0.043mg/kg, which is well under the limit set for fresh vegetables. So by European standards, Soylent is within the limits for the raw grains and vegetables you’re supposed to be eating. I’m all for minimizing exposure to heavy metals, but let’s not hyperbolically claim that Soylent is poisoning people, as I’ve seen people do on Twitter.

With European standards in mind, let’s consider California’s Proposition 65 safe harbor levels as listed in the official documents. The California limit for cadmium is 4.1 µg/day, and the lead level is 15 µg/day. Note, that’s micrograms in an entire day’s food. Yet by my calculations, one 40g FDA-standard cup of spinach in a salad and you’re already at nearly double the California limit for cadmium.

So the only reason you don’t see Proposition 65 warnings on your salad is that natural foods are specifically exempted from Proposition 65. If they weren’t, practically everything in Whole Foods would need a warning label. To illustrate this, the American Council on Science and Health threatened to sue Whole Foods for not putting warning labels on its fresh bread.

Also, in spite of the name, the “Safe Harbor” limits are not safe limits for human consumption. Rather, they are limits below which foods are considered so safe that they don’t need a warning label. For instance, in the case of carcinogens, they correspond to no significant risk levels.

So why the lawsuits? As the ACSH explains:

Bounty hunters can earn up to $3,000 a day for each day a manufacturer is in violation of Prop. 65’s labeling requirement, Stier said. Some environmental activist groups in California exist solely to bring Prop. 65 lawsuits against manufacturers, he added.

If “As You Sow” can show that Soylent failed to put Proposition 65 notices on its web site for a few months after starting to ship product, they can cash in. I’m sure that’s not their only motivation for the lawsuit, but I bet it helps.

Finally, consider the EPA limits on lead and cadmium in your drinking water. 0.005mg/l for cadmium, 0.015mg/l “action level” for lead. So if you drink the 2 liters of water a day recommended by many, you could be drinking nearly twice the California limit for lead and 20x the limit for cadmium, in your drinking water alone, and that would be considered perfectly safe with no action required.

Look, I’m all for minimizing heavy metal exposure from foods, and I get that Rob Rhinehart is a bit of a crank, and that it’s fun to pile on and mock him. But can we please not take everything on PRNewswire at face value? Remember, absolutely anyone can get anything they like published on PRNewswire just by paying.