- The U.S. Agriculture Department ruled that carrageenan can be used in organic foods, according to a notice published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.
- Two-thirds of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which is an advisory arm of the USDA, voted to withdraw approval of the seaweed-derived emulsifier in November 2016. But because the NOSB is an advisory board, USDA does not have to follow its advice.
- "Carrageenan has specific uses in an array of agricultural products, and public comments reported that potential substitutes do not adequately replicate the functions of carrageenan across the broad scope of use," the Federal Register states.
Carrageenan, a widely used and popular emulsifier, is a controversial ingredient. Consumers and researchers have said the ingredient causes inflammation and gastrointestinal distress. While some studies have found links between carrageenan and stomach pain, glucose intolerance and Type 2 diabetes, other researchers have not been able to replicate those findings. The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy group that has made carrageenan one of its central issues, published a document made up of consumer comments anecdotally reporting discomfort when they consumed carrageenan.
The NOSB vote to remove carrageenan from the list of approved ingredients for organic food was seen by many as the beginning of the end of its dominance. Cornucopia Institute co-founder Mark Kastel told Food Dive in November 2016 that if carrageenan wasn't acceptable for organic products, it was only a matter of time before manufacturers start using something else.
Even before Wednesday's decision from the USDA, several manufacturers had been working to remove carrageenan from their products, including Organic Valley, Stonyfield and Eden Foods. Other products were formulated without carrageenan from the beginning because of the controversy around the ingredient. Because of its reputation, the market for the emulsifier has been projected to grow extremely slowly.
When the board voted to remove carrageenan from the list of substances that could be used in organic food, the reasoning had nothing to do with potential health effects. Members felt there were other options available. The entry in the Federal Register said exactly the opposite, indicating public comment given to the board demonstrated manufacturers needed to continue to be able to use carraegeenan "because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitutes."
This is only the second time in three decades that the USDA has gone against the National Organic Standards Board's recommendation to remove an ingredient from the approved list, according to a statement from the Cornucopia Institute.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which argued to keep carrageenan on the approved list, applauded the decision on Thursday.
“USDA made the right decision to allow carrageenan to remain on the list of approved food additives," said an emailed written statement from the group. "Regulatory agencies and research organizations around the world have consistently determined carrageenan is safe for consumption and is highly functional food additive, and there is no adequate alternative replacement that provides the same functions.”
Consumer groups were outraged at the USDA's decision — but not just because of the potential dangers of carrageenan.
“The USDA has violated the public’s trust in the USDA organic label, and will continue to undermine the value of the label in the market as long as it ignores the legal authority of the NOSB, and of public process, to establish the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances,” Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides and a former member of the organic standards board, said in a statement from the Cornucopia Institute.
Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, said in a statement the decision represents a "troubling precedent."
“Current law requires the USDA to base the National List of allowable ingredients for organic food on the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, which are developed after extensive public engagement and stakeholder input," she said. "The USDA’s decision to ignore the NOSB’s recommendation raises serious concerns about the future of the organic label.”
This is the second recent action by USDA that has riled organic consumer groups. Last month, the department withdrew a controversial rule that set organic animal welfare standards. USDA ruled "consumers trust the current approach that balances consumer expectations and the needs of organic producers and handlers." The decision, which organic groups say canceled a carefully considered recommendation, led the Organic Trade Association to file a lawsuit.
"We've got a learning curve with the new administration on what it means for the government to have a role in what is a voluntary industry-driven standard," Laura Batcha, the CEO and executive director of the OTA, told Food Dive about the organic animal welfare standards decision. "For organic, the role of government is not to be the decider about what constitutes organic."
While these decisions may make manufacturers and producers happy, consumers who pay close attention to what goes into their food could get upset. While organic food sales in 2016 hit a record high of $43 billion, and organic products are in 82.3% of the nation's households, decisions like these could erode consumers' opinion of what organic means — and its value. As more products — from snacks to meats — work to get the organic label, the USDA should do what it can to keep up consumer confidence.