The National Organic Standards Board has voted 10-3, with one abstention, to remove carrageenan from the list of substances approved for use in food items labeled “USDA Organic.” The vote came Thursday afternoon during the board’s three-day fall meeting in St. Louis.
NOSB members were tentatively scheduled to make a decision Friday on whether to approve the continued use of “bioponics” to produce organically certified food. Bioponics combines the production methods of hydroponics and aquaponics to grow produce using containers but without using soil.
Instead, the board voted 10-4 Friday afternoon to send the controversy back to a subcommittee for more discussion and clarification of how such production processes are defined. This means that food grown using hydroponic methods may continue to be certified as organic if the production operations otherwise meet established criteria for the designation.
The debate about whether carrageenan, an FDA-approved additive made from red seaweed, can safely be used in human food has been going on for years. Carrageenan is commonly used as a thickener and stabilizer in infant formula, dairy products, non-dairy “milk” analogs, meats and drink mixes.
Concerns have been raised about the risk of inflammation and possibly colon cancer in humans and animals from ingesting carrageenan in food products. However, there is a lack of consensus about whether the scientific studies done to date are conclusive about the effect on human health of consuming carrageenan.
Along with several other substances, it was scheduled to sunset from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances in November 2018.
Reaction to the NOSB vote was swift, with industry groups expressing opposition and organic agriculture supporters declaring victory, although both sides noted that a final decision on the matter rests with USDA.
“The International Food Additives Council is disappointed the NOSB ignored overwhelming testimony that carrageenan is essential in the production of hundreds of organic foods and beverages,” said IFAC Executive Director Robert Rankin in a written statement.
Calling the NOSB vote “a concerning precedent,” Rankin added that delisting the substance will mean fewer options and inferior products as companies “struggle with alternatives that do not work as well as carrageenan.”
Leon Bruner, chief science officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said carrageenan should remain on the list of approved food additives because it has been proven safe for consumption and no alternatives provide the same functions.
“Regulatory agencies and research organizations around the world have consistently determined carrageenan is a safe and highly functional food additive,” Bruner said.
Susan Finn of United 4 Food Science said she was discouraged that the board “bowed to activist pressure and dubious science” in its vote to remove carrageenan from the list.
“The Board’s recommendation would make it difficult for organic food products to compete with non-organic products on sensory attributes such as taste and texture. This outcome may lead to consumers deselecting organic foods altogether, which runs counter to the National Organic Program’s mission,” she said.
Finn said the coalition group will now focus on convincing USDA to reverse the board’s decision.
FMC Corporation, a chemical manufacturer based in Philadelphia, released a statement that the company remains “fully supportive of carrageenan despite a deeply flawed decision” by the board.
“The NOSB’s decision serves as an interim recommendation and is not final,” FMC stated. “The final review and decision will be made by the United States Department of Agriculture, which has supported carrageenan’s use in food in the past. The USDA is scheduled to publish its final rule in November 2018.”
In celebrating the board’s decision, the Center for Food Safety said in a statement that consumers have been expressing their discontent with the presence of carrageenan in foods “so ardently” that some manufacturers have already abandoned the ingredient.
“The board’s recognition that carrageenan is not essential to organic, as evidenced by the ability of many manufacturers to eliminate it from their products, is an enormous victory for organic integrity,” said Cameron Harsh, CFS’ senior manager for organic and animal policy. “With this important vote, it is now in USDA’s hands to issue a proposed rule change for notice and comment as the next step in the removal process.”
He added that the board’s action illustrates the power organic consumers have in the marketplace when they become active and vote with their wallets.
“We expect the USDA will respect the input of the organic community, and decision of the board, by publishing a rule in the Federal Register removing carrageenan and allowing a reasonable amount of time to clear existing inventories and reformulate products containing the ingredient,” Kastel said.
At this week’s meeting, the NOSB also rejected petitions to approve 1-Methylcyclopropene (1-MCP) for use on post-harvest apples to delay aging and ripening and the use of soy wax as plugs and sealant in organic mushroom production.
The NOSB is an citizen advisory group responsible for considering and making recommendations to USDA on issues involving the production, handling and processing of organic products. Among other duties, the board reviews each substance on the National List every five years to make sure it confirms to specific criteria and also consider petitions or add or delete a particular substance.
Members of the NOSB are appointed to five-year terms by the secretary of agriculture. It currently has four members who own or operate an organic farming operation; two who own or operate an organic handling operation; one who owns or operates a retail outlet trading in organic products; three with expertise in environmental protection; three from public or consumer interest groups; one with toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry expertise, and one who is a USDA-accredited certifying agent.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed five new members to the NOSB who will begin serving their five-year terms on Jan. 24, 2017.
His appointees are: Asa Bradman, a California environmental health scientist; Steve Ela, who has an organic farm in Colorado; Sue Baird, an organic consultant in Missouri; David Mortensen, a plant ecology and weed management professor at Penn State, and Joelle Mosso, a product line manager for Olam International in Fresno, CA.
The new members will replace Carmela Beck, organic program manager for Driscoll Strawberry Associates in Watsonville, CA; Tracy Favre, a sustainable land management consultant from Texas; current NOSB Chair Jean Richardson, a retired University of Vermont professor of environmental studies and environmental law; Harold Austin of Zirkle Fruit Company, Selah, WA, and Zea Sonnabend, a California organic farmer and farm inspector.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)