Two leading spirulina producers have criticised the National Organic Standards Board's (NOSB) decision to disallow the use of Chilean nitrate in organic production as unjust, and have declined to alter their process as safety could not be guaranteed.
Hawaiian-based Cyanotech and Californian Earthwise both opted to cease offering organic spirulina in October 2005. The NOSB originally voted to disallow the use of Chilean nitrate in organic farming in 2002, but after petitioning granted a three-year window to spirulina-producers.
Chilean nitrate is a water-soluble source of nitrogen. It is an organic material but, since it is mined, not a sustainable one.
While a water-soluble source is required in microalgae farming, in terrestrial farming it is not desirable as it can lead to the contamination of ground water. The companies have stressed that they use pond liners and closed loop systems in their microalgae farming to avoid the possibility of ground seepage or run-off.
Bob Capelli, VP of sales at Cyanotech, told NutraIngredients-USA.com at last week's Expo West in Anaheim that it is "unjust" to lump together microalgae farming with agriculture.
Cyanotech and Earthrise have conducted research into potential alternative fertilizers for spirulina, but both concluded that maintaining organic production would not only result in a lower quality product at higher cost, but also compromise the safety of thier products.
They therefore opted to continue producing spirulina in just the same way as they have for more than a decade, but will no longer call it 'organic'.
Capelli said that other options for fertilizer are manure and compost. While these may be feasible for terrestrial farming, in spirulina production it would compromise safety by raising heavy metals and bacteria counts.
This poses a problem for makers of spirulina-containing supplements who have leveraged the organic origin in their marketing.
What is more, the use of manure would mean that any organic spirulina produced under the new standard could no longer be considered vegetarian or vegan, "a critical point of distinction to many spirulina customers," said Cyanotech CEO Dr Gerald Cysewski.
However, since October, some Asian-based companies have announced that they are offering organic, vegetarian spirulina which complies with the NOSB standards.
India's Parry Nutraceuticals has announced that it is offering NOSB-compliant spirulina growing using only vegetarian sources of nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients.
It claims to have spent two years developing the process, and has obtained a raft of additional certifications, as well has having qualified for the US Pharmacopeia Dietary Supplement Ingredient Verification Program.
"We have worked very hard to create an all-vegetarian spirulina that is certified organic in the US and Europe," Parry's US agent Dr John Benemann told NutraIngredients-USA.com.
He said that Parry was using a plant-based nutrient source.
But Capelli said: "We want to protect what we built, and encourage people to do due diligence by measuring the nutrients, metals and bacteria, and test for irradiation."
To date, Cyanotech has lost only two of its smaller customers as a result of no longer being able to call its spirulina organic, representing around five percent of its spirulina sales.