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Bayer lobbies Congress to help fight lawsuits tying Roundup to cancer

A bottle of Bayer Roundup brand weed killer concentrate is arranged for a photograph in a garden shed in Princeton, Ill., on March 28, 2019.  (Bloomberg )
By Tony Romm Washington Post

The biotech giant Bayer has lobbied Congress over the past year to advance legislation that could shield the company from billions of dollars in lawsuits, part of a national campaign to defeat claims that its weedkiller Roundup causes cancer in people who use it frequently.

The measure threatens to make it harder for farmers and groundskeepers to argue that they were not fully informed about some health and safety risks posed by the popular herbicide. By erecting new legal barriers to bringing those cases, Bayer seeks to prevent sizable payouts to plaintiffs while sparing itself from a financial crisis.

At the heart of the lobbying push is glyphosate, the active ingredient in certain formulations of Roundup. Some health and environmental authorities contend it is a carcinogen, but the federal government - which previously conducted its own review - does not. Under local laws, thousands of plaintiffs have filed lawsuits targeting Roundup over the past decade, claiming at times they were never warned that regular exposure could cause them to develop debilitating or deadly diseases, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Throughout the legal wrangling, Bayer has maintained that its popular weedkiller is safe, though it agreed to pay roughly $10 billion in a landmark settlement that concluded thousands of cases in 2020 without any admission of wrongdoing. Yet tens of thousands of additional claims remain unresolved, prompting Bayer to mount a nationwide lobbying campaign in hopes of reducing its risk of future liability.

In Washington, the company recently has set its sights on the sweeping legislation known as the farm bill, which Congress must adopt every five years to sustain federal agriculture and nutrition programs. The approximately 1,000-page House version of the measure contains a single section - drafted with the aid of Bayer - that could halt some lawsuits against Roundup, according to documents viewed by The Washington Post and seven people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The provision builds on an earlier proposal introduced by Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.), two members of the House Agriculture Committee. Bayer helped craft that measure, then circulated it among lawmakers to rally support before later pushing the House to add it to the farm bill, the people familiar with the effort said. The House doesn’t yet have a vote scheduled on that package, which expires Sept. 30.

Johnson and Costa each declined through their spokespeople to be interviewed. Johnson said in a statement that his legislation chiefly aims to “prevent a patchwork of state requirements and regulations” around pesticides, and Costa said the measure would “create a more sustainable and secure food supply.”

Jess Christiansen, the head of crop science and sustainability communications at Bayer, acknowledged that the company “worked with a lot of different lawmakers on different parts of the language.”

Christiansen stressed there has been “no link to glyphosate, or the uses of Roundup, causing cancer.” The bill, she added, is not meant as “a shield at all” to litigation.

“This is going to have to play out in the courts,” she said.

The outcome carries immense financial stakes for Bayer, a German firm that acquired Roundup as part of its 2018 purchase of Monsanto, a sprawling American agricultural and chemical giant. The $63 billion deal saw Bayer inherit a vast series of costly lawsuits that have since cut deeply into its bottom line - posing what Bill Anderson, the company’s chief executive, described as an “existential” threat during a speech at an industry conference this spring.

By its own count, Bayer said it has faced about 170,000 claims alleging that Roundup harmed agricultural workers exposed to the weedkiller for long periods. Even after its landmark 2020 settlement, roughly one-third of those claims are outstanding, and in some instances, juries have awarded sky-high monetary damages to plaintiffs at trial. In January, for example, a Philadelphia court initially awarded John McKivison, a local warehouse worker, more than $2 billion after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that he said was due to repeated contact with Roundup.

Bayer previously set aside $16 billion to resolve Roundup-related cases, and it has fought vigorously to reduce the damages - with varying degrees of success. It persuaded a court in June to slash what it owed McKivison to $400 million, while signaling it would further appeal the ruling, as it looks to mount a broader legal challenge against the authority of state and local governments to regulate pesticide and herbicide warning labels in the first place. McKivison also plans to appeal; one of his lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.

In the meantime, Bayer also has sought to reshape federal, state and local laws, hoping to erect a blockade against future lawsuits. Over the past year, the company has helped advance bills in Idaho, Iowa and Missouri, according to state lobbying records, each of which could effectively immunize the company against allegations that its chemicals can cause cancer. Top company executives have promised to push these policies more aggressively - and in a wider array of states - in the coming legislative year.

“We know that legislative solutions are not usually quick in coming, but we feel like it is the right thing to pursue, and we will see how and how long it takes and when we could get such progress,” Anderson told investors on an earnings call last month.

But Bayer has paid special attention to Washington, recognizing that a victory in the nation’s capital could “cover all of the U.S.,” the chief executive said - creating a single federal standard that could help stamp out many of its legal woes.

“They’ve been losing, so they’re coming to Congress with hat in hand trying to change the law,” said Daniel Savery, a senior legislative representative for Earthjustice, a climate advocacy group.

Bayer’s lobbyists have focused on the Agricultural Labeling Uniformity Act, which would limit state and local governments from issuing their own rules about pesticide safety warnings. Instead, they would be required to follow the lead of the federal government on what to label and when - an approach that Johnson described last year as an effort to combat “political agendas” that threaten to “instill fear in consumers.”

“Imagine cereal companies having to make a different box for each of the 50 states,” he said in a statement. “It would cause confusion for buyers and the seller. My bill is the same concept but for pesticide labels, and it simply reaffirms what is already in the law.”

That measure could effectively shut down some of the lawsuits against Bayer, legal experts said. The legislation aims to prevent local governments and courts from being able to “penalize or hold liable any entity for failing to comply” with rules for pesticide warnings that differ substantially from what the federal government already mandates.

At the moment, the Environmental Protection Agency does not treat the underlying chemical in Roundup as a carcinogen. While the agency plans to reevaluate its stance on glyphosate in 2026, its views are at odds with some global health authorities, including the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which identified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in 2015.

“If [Bayer] were successful in preempting state laws that require warnings, they would be successful in cutting off access to justice for the landscape workers and others who have been harmed by glyphosate,” said Scott Faber, who leads government affairs efforts for the Environmental Working Group, a climate advocacy organization that has opposed Bayer.

Remmington Belford, a spokesman for the EPA, said in a statement that the agency’s “underlying scientific findings regarding glyphosate, including its finding that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans, remain the same at this time.” He pointed to other regulators around the world, including food and health officials in Europe, that have taken a similar approach as the United States has.

Christiansen, the Bayer executive, said the existing EPA review on pesticides is “rigorous,” adding that the safety of glyphosate has “been backed by over 50 years of science and data.” Still, the company announced in 2021 it would rework the active ingredients in the consumer versions of Roundup, describing the change as part of a strategy to “close the door on this litigation.” (Professional and agricultural formulations were left unchanged at the time.)

Months before unveiling the agricultural labeling act, Johnson - its lead sponsor - solicited input from Bayer lobbyists, who shopped early drafts to congressional offices in hopes of securing bipartisan support, according to versions of the legislation obtained by The Post that date to March 2023. The company has spent about $9.6 million to lobby federal policymakers on the legislation and other related issues since the start of last year, according to government disclosures.

Anderson, Bayer’s CEO, also has visited Washington multiple times since last fall to press his company’s political interests, the company confirmed. Bayer further relied on the support and reach of other industry groups, including CropLife America, which represents pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers.

“Recent state actions on labeling have directly and unjustifiably contradicted EPA’s scientific findings on certain pesticides’ safety,” Alexandra Dunn, the president of CropLife America, said in a statement, adding that these “actions create an unworkable, inconsistent patchwork of state pesticide labels.”

The mere introduction of the labeling bill sparked broad outcry from lawmakers, local officials, public health experts and climate advocates, who feared thousands of people would not get the care and compensation they need after potentially harmful exposure to glyphosate. In a January letter, about 140 mayors and other leaders from states including Colorado, Georgia, Maryland and Texas warned that it would be “harmful to the public interest.” While they did not mention Bayer by name, they raised alarm that Congress might make it “harder for our injured constituents to seek justice against irresponsible companies.”

House Republicans nonetheless ramped up their efforts to append the labeling bill - and its potential benefit for Bayer - to a series of fast-moving, must-pass legislative packages.

Last year, GOP leaders added a version of the proposal to a measure funding the EPA, which did not become law. Johnson and other Republicans also worked to insert it in an unrelated package paving the way for Pentagon spending last summer, but that push similarly faltered. At the time, Bayer indicated lobbying on the annual legislation, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, federal records show.

In unveiling the House version of the farm bill earlier this year, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), the leader of the panel, called little attention to the two-page section or the billions of dollars potentially on the line for Bayer. But he heralded the overall package as the product of “extensive feedback from stakeholders and all members of the House.”

His office declined to comment.