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Knowledge Center Items Internal Documents Shine an Unfavorable Light (and Lawsuit) on Agriculture Company

Internal Documents Shine an Unfavorable Light (and Lawsuit) on Agriculture Company

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For a wide variety of companies—industrial behemoths, tech companies and Wall Street traders alike—it has long been common practice to provide funding for research that results in findings that accentuate the positive in their products or services. In this regard, St. Louis, Missouri-based agriculture giant Monsanto Co. is no different. However, a courtroom battle that has raged for more than two years over the alleged cancer-causing potential for one of Monsanto’s premier products highlights how companies carry out the practice and serves as a cautionary tale for businesses in terms of how critical agribusiness insurance is to their business operations.

The suit centers around the safety of the most common weed killer in the world: Roundup. Manufactured by Monsanto and marketed to large-scale farmers and individual gardeners alike, the active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, apparently has been the subject of internal debate about its safety even as the company funded scientific and academic research intended to assert just that. This disparity became known when more than 20,000 of Monsanto’s internal memos, meeting minutes, letters, and other documents written over nearly 20 years were released by a law firm involved in the lawsuit. In one internal email, a Monsanto scientist wrote, “If somebody came to me and said they wanted to test Roundup I know how I would react—with serious concern.”  Other documents appear to indicate that Monsanto continued to manufacture and sell polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a toxic, long-lived industrial chemical for several years after learning that they were hazardous to public health and the environment, according to legal review performed on a number of the documents.

Now, contention swirls not just about the products themselves but the release of the internal documents, which Monsanto representatives say violates a standing confidentiality order. The company says it will sue for penalties against the firm that released the documents which it says were cherry-picked to take statements out of context, yet realizes the damage to its reputation has already occurred—“You can’t unring a bell,” said a Monsanto top executive. The firm that released the documents retorts that Monsanto’s legal team erred in not taking the proper action to preserve the confidentiality of the documents.

Also at issue, according to a company email: what Monsanto calls a “complete misunderstanding” amid questions on the manner in which the company was attempting to present authorship on presentations and publications, as expressed in another internal document written by an employee who is no longer with the company. The matter was later resolved. Still, another document discussed an article that appeared on a Forbes website, disputing the findings of a branch of the World Health Organization which labeled glyphosate a probable carcinogen—a finding which also has been disputed by other regulatory agencies. The article did not express that the company had been involved in the article’s preparation or writing. Monsanto countered that the article was a collaborative op-ed effort rather than a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Many aspects of an agribusiness’ operations—from proper disposal of detritus to, as shown above, efforts to sway opinion on controversial products or which appear to confirm knowledge of negative information—have the potential to yield disastrous results for companies involved in the manufacturing and supply of agrochemicals. Thus, it is particularly important for companies to ensure their operations conform to all state and federal health and safety requirements, as well as foster an environment where dedication to good business practices and workplace safety is paramount. What’s more, having the right Agribusiness insurance program in place is critical to protect the company in the event of a claim. RPS provides insurance solutions for agribusiness firms, with programs that can be designed to include Agribusiness, Professional Liability, Farm and Ranch, Equine, and other coverages. Contact us for more information.

Sources: New York Times, Wall Street Journal

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