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Organic board: Carrageenan shouldn't be in organic food, no decision now on hydroponics

Carrageenan should no longer be allowed as an additive to organic food, the National Organic Standards Board decided Thursday.

Ten people on the 15-member board voted at its fall meeting in St. Louis to disallow the seaweed-derived substance, which is commonly used as an emulsifier in food products. Three voted to keep it on the list, and one member abstained. According to board rules, to get an item taken off of the approved list, two-thirds of the members need to vote for its removal. 

Carrageenan has been a controversial ingredient because there is some scientific and anecdotal evidence that it causes digestive inflammation. Other researchers have not been able to duplicate those findings and argue that the ingredient is safe and extremely effective in helping to hold food items like ice cream and baby formula in suspension.

The decision of the panel, which is made up of representatives of the organic food community and advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will begin the process of federal rulemaking to outlaw the use of the additive. Because of the NOSB's constant review of all items used in organic food, the regulations to prohibit carrageenan in organic foods are likely to be fast-tracked, and may be in place within the next 12 months. Public comment will be allowed as part of the process.

This decision does not impact non-organic foods' use of carrageenan as an emulsifying ingredient.

People on both sides of the carrageenan debate quickly reacted to the decision.

“Carrageenan should remain on the National Organic Standards Board list of approved food additives because it has been proven safe for consumption and there is not an adequate alternative replacement that provides the same functions," Grocery Manufacturers Association Chief Science Officer Leon Bruner said in a written statement. "Regulatory agencies and research organizations around the world have consistently determined carrageenan is a safe and highly functional food additive.”

Robert Rankin, executive director of the International Food Additives Council, said in a written statement that in light of the scientific evidence showing carrageenan is safe, the board's decision is disappointing.

"Delisting carrageenan will result in fewer organic options and inferior organic products as companies struggle to reformulate with alternatives that do not work as well as carrageenan," Rankin said. "In the absence of wholly organic alternatives for carrageenan, the Board’s vote sets a concerning precedent that could lead to other National List substances being targeted and removed despite feedback from organic producers that these ingredients are essential to organic production."

Speaking on behalf of United 4 Food Science — a coalition of manufacturers and others who support the use of carrageenan — registered dietitian and past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Susan Finn said in a  written statement the board's decision set a "dangerous precedent." 

"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," Finn wrote. "This outcome may lead to consumers deselecting organic foods altogether, which runs counter to the National Organic Program’s mission.

“Our fight is not over. Our broad coalition of food scientists, nutritionists, academics, toxicologists, and food and agriculture experts will focus on convincing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reverse this decision and ensure scientific rigor remain in the regulatory review and decision-making process in Washington, D.C.”

Mark Kastel, co-founder of agriculture policy group the Cornucopia Institute, has been one of the leading advocates for removing carrageenan from organic food. The Institute gave the NOSB more than 40,000 petitions from stakeholders wanting the seaweed additive off of the approved list. It also helped hundreds of consumers shared personal stories of gastrointestinal illness that may have been caused by carrageenan.

"We're very heartened that the NOSB voted to protect the reputation of the organic label," Kastel wrote in an email. "A large percentage of organic food manufacturers had already reacted to consumer concern about the potential health impacts of carrageenan and eliminated it from their formulations."

"This was the culmination of six years of work by The Cornucopia Institute, particularly our scientific staff. But this really illustrates the power organic consumers have in the marketplace when they flex their muscles in terms of both activism and voting with their pocketbooks."

The NOSB did not act on another hot-button issue before it: Whether hydroponic crops can be certified organic. The board decided to send the matter of whether organic standards align with hydroponic, aquaponic and biopninc production back to committee.

The Cornucopia Institute contends that while the NOSB has barred hydroponics from bearing the certified organic seal, USDA has allowed more than 100 foreign and domestic growers to become certified organic. The group filed a lawsuit earlier this month against some of the larger growing businesses and their organic certifying agents.

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Top image credit: Peter Southwood