The growing, but increasingly fractured organic industry does little these days that is not without controversy. USDA’s decision earlier this week to buck a recommendation and allow carrageenan as an ingredient in organic products is just another example.

With 7 percent domestic and 11 percent international growth rates, sales of organic foods are approaching $50 billion a year. But the marketplace success has brought the division of the organic industry into its various segments, each seemingly with different organizations.

One observer recently said all the fights are “over who should qualify for the price premium flowing to organic farmers.”

Also increasing divided, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in late 2016 voted 10-3 with one abstention to recommend that USDA remove carrageenan from the list of substances approved for use in food items labeled as “USDA Organic.”

The safety of carrageenan, as a food additive made from red seaweed, is usually considered “settled science.” 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.

At the time of the NOSB vote, International Food Additives Council’s Robert Rankin said carrageenan “is essential in the production of hundreds of organic foods and beverages.” Leon Bruner, chief science officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said carrageenan should remain on the list of approved food additives for USDA organic certified foods because it has been proven safe for consumption and no alternatives provide the same functions.

Bruner said regulatory agencies and research organizations around the world have consistently determined carrageenan is a safe and highly functional food additive. 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.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) decided to keep carrageenan on the National Organic Program’s list of permitted non-organic ingredients because potential substitutes do not adequately replicate the function of carrageenan across a broad scope of uses including thickener and emulsifiers.

In making the announcement, USDA said the NOSB did not make its recommendation out of a concern for food safety, but on the belief that other organic options existed to replace carrageenan in formulations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and world regulatory authorities have repeatedly found carrageenan to be safe.

Still, activist organizations like Consumers Union were quick to criticize the USDA decision. The CU said the safety of the food additive “is questionable.”  CU’s Charlotte Vallaeys said USDA’s decision overturning the NOSB recommendation was “a troubling precedent that undermines the integrity of the organic label.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)