Answer: When the labelling is done by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a French-based institution that is having a big and unjustified impact on American law and our economy.
That's the majority view from an investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which is trying to understand how IARC classified the most commonly used herbicide in the world as a probable carcinogen, while nearly every government agency which evaluated the chemical, including our own EPA, reached the opposite conclusion.
Big money, and the future of American agriculture, is involved. The chemical is glyphosate, an ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, which is used worldwide to boost agricultural productivity, increasingly in conjunction with genetically modified crops. The product is a huge target for class-action lawyers and green activists who make a living sowing hatred of Monsanto and its products. (Neither of us has ever received funding from Monsanto.)
IARC, based in Lyon, France, issues monographs which heavily influence policy, public opinion and even legal actions. In 2016, then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (now a Fox News contributor) warned the National Institutes of Health about IARC's "record of controversy, retractions, and inconsistencies" and said that "IARC's determinations influence American policymaking, even though IARC avoids having to meet the strict scientific standards and government scrutiny afforded to science advisory committees in America."
Chaffetz was exactly right. IARC has almost never studied a chemical that it did not dislike. In fact, it has only found one— Caprolactam—out of more than 900 evaluations, it described as "not" carcinogenic to humans.
Furthermore, IARC operates in secrecy. During the Congressional hearing, Rep. Brian Babin (R, Texas) criticized IARC for rejecting basic scientific protocol: "An IARC working group collaborates behind closed-doors to select data, analyze data, and reach conclusions. So, without any public engagement or independent scientific peer review, the working group acts as hand-in-hand with IARC staff as judges, juries, and executioners."
IARC officials have also warned U.S. scientists, employed by public universities who participated on its glyphosate working group not to share any documents or emails with reporters, potentially violating FOIA standards on public employees.
All this is having real-world effect. California, for example, might soon require coffee shops to post cancer warnings based on two IARC reports that concluded the acrylamide found in roasted coffee beans is a probable carcinogen—and so is the act of drinking extremely hot beverages. (Acrylamide is, among other things, a byproduct of almost all kinds of cooking.)
A widely-ridiculed 2015 IARC report defined red and processed meats as probable carcinogens-- in the same category as cigarettes and plutonium. That classification has been used by groups such as PETA to call for sin-taxes on foods humans have been eating since the dawn of time.
The broad acceptance of IARC classifications challenges the very meaning of the word "carcinogen." IARC monographs are hazard assessments, which ask whether something could potentially cause cancer.
But that designation is of little value to the public without a risk assessment, which takes into account factors such as the level of exposure to the hazard.
Think of it this way: Getting hit by a subway car is a hazard. If you live in the desert, getting hit by a subway is still a hazard - it's just not a risk you should worry about where you live.
Yet in the U.S., IARC's hazard assessments are routinely used by zealous environmentalists as an acceptable substitute for risk assessments. And they are now being embedded into American consumer law.
The biggest example is California's Proposition 65, a law that requires cancer and birth defect warning labels on a range of products containing chemicals thought to be dangerous. The list of chemicals covered by the 1986 law has ballooned to more 900, in part because unelected California bureaucrats decided to rely on IARC for identifying those to be added to the list.
Ubiquitous California warning labels have become meaningless to consumers, cost businesses millions of dollars each year, and are a boon only to class-action lawyers.
Proposition 65 also provides for a "bounty hunter" provision, which entitles members of the public to cash in by bringing a lawsuit against companies which fail to post a warning label. These individuals or groups—and lawyers who often foment the suits-- are then entitled to collect the lion's share of fines: $2,500 per day for each instance of a violation.
In 2015, an IARC report that declared glyphosate a "probable human carcinogen," is now having an impact not only on public policy, but on litigation that could badly harm American farmers. No governmental agency that has studied the weed killer has ever concluded it causes cancer: IARC's report has been heavily criticized and disputed by research that IARC refused to consider. (You can read more background here.)
The IARC monograph is being used to leverage anti-glyphosate activism here and abroad. Because of the IARC classification, the chemical landed on California's Proposition 65 list, so any product containing glyphosate would require a warning label as of this summer.
A federal judge earlier this week temporarily halted that plan, calling the label "false and misleading." U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb said the label would not be accurate because "it conveys the message that glyphosate's carcinogenicity is an undisputed fact, when almost all other regulators have concluded that there is insufficient evidence is causes cancer."
But for now, glyphosate will remain on the Prop 65 list, leading consumers to believe the weed-killer is dangerous, compellng farmers to use options that are more expensive, more toxic, and less effective. Worse, the IARC paper will justify outrageous lawsuits which claim actual harm, something IARC's methodology could never show.
IARC officials also think they're above Congressional oversight even though the group is partially funded by U.S. tax dollars. Christopher Wild, IARCs executive director, twice refused to recommend witnesses for the recent Congressional hearing, despite getting more than $48 million since 1985 from the National Institutes of Health.
House Science Committee chairman Lamar Smith blasted IARC's snub: "When asked to provide a witness for this hearing, IARC Director Wild refused to attend. No doubt he could not defend IARC's glyphosate findings."
IARC's defending witness at the congressional hearing was Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist from the activist group, Natural Resources Defense Council. Her testimony was a broadside against anyone who didn't fall into line with IARC's finding, including the Obama Administration's EPA.
The fact is that IARC badly needs to be reformed, and some fundamental changes need to be made.
For starters, the U.N. agency should acknowledge that its reports have been repeatedly misused, more effectively communicate that its findings are not relevant to risk, and should not be used for inappropriate warnings, such as for California's Proposition 65.
Better yet, IARC should do actual risk-assessments, which would result in far fewer needless headline-grabbing carcinogen classifications. And it should operate transparently; allowing for outside peer-review, public engagement, and, yes, oversight from its donors.
But as one might expect from a subsidiary of the scandal-plagued WHO, IARC is unrepentant.
Sitting in France, it uses outdated and incomplete methodologies to conjure up "carcinogen" warnings that now threaten to warp our economy. In doing so, IARC also undermines much-needed trust in global public health institutions.
In the spirit of the French concept of laissez-faire, we say, if it doesn't want to change, let IARC do its thing--but we shouldn't pay for it.
U.S. taxpayers should let their representatives know that because Americans support responsible global public health programs, evidence-based science, and transparent government, IARC funding should be frozen until it institutes these changes.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center.