NOSB debates organic status of carrageenan, tocopherols, marine algae, hydroponics

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: FMC
Picture: FMC

Related tags Algae Organic food Seaweed

Organic industry stakeholders from across the nation are gathered in St. Louis today for what promises to be a highly contentious three-day meeting during which the National Organic Standards Board will debate the role of hydroponic production, carrageenan, tocopherols and marine algae in organic production and products, as well as other hot button issues.

After listening to impassioned pleas at the Spring NOSB meeting in Washington​ to keep or remove the stabilizer carrageenan from the National List of permitted non-organic materials, NOSB is slated to make a final decision on its recommendation to USDA's organic program at the fall meeting, which lasts through Friday. 

At the Spring meeting, members of the board were torn on whether to remove the ingredient, which is derived from seaweed. Some people claim the ingredient causes gut inflammation, but recent research has called those findings into question​. 

While the subcommittee tasked with evaluating carrageenan agrees the scientific evidence does not support claims that the ingredient harms humans, it voted 5 to 2 with one absent to recommend removing it from the National List. The split recommendation is based not on safety but on the presence of viable alternatives.

Many manufacturers already have phased the ingredients out in response to consumer pressure and the ongoing NOSB debate, but it is still essential to some companies, according to the Organic Trade Association. 

Marine algae under the microscope

Carrageenan is not the only ingredient from sea plants under the microscope at the meeting -- in fact, all nine algae inputs on the National List are directly or indirectly under scrutiny because of how they are harvested and produced. 

The Handling Subcommittee will present analysis of how seaweed is harvested, its impact on the environment and how it fits within the organic mission. The technical review was requested after identifying that some marine environments are polluted and the ingredients often are harvested without ecosystem management and biomass protection strategies. 

Based on the discussion, NOSB could propose annotation to some of the materials on the list or it could recommend NOP provide guidance on the use of seaweed in organic production, OTA explains in materials prepared for the meeting. 

Tocopherols could see a split

A less contentious but important discussion point at the meeting will be potentially changing how tocopherols are listed on the National List. 

Tocopherols were retained on the list as allowable non-organic material as part of the last ingredient review, but some commenters said non-synthetic tocopherols should be used instead of synthetic options. 

An NOSB subcommittee recommended 8 to 0 with 1 absent to add a duplicate "non-synthetic"​ option to the National List in addition to the existing synthetic option as a way to encourage manufacturers to use non-synthetic options while awaiting commercial viability of organic versions. 

While OTA supports the addition of non-synthetic tocopherols on the National List, it believes the tocopherols should be derived from plant sources only as opposed to the proposal of vegetable oil plant sources. It also recommends strengthening the suggestion to say organic and non-synthetic forms must be used if available. 

The Cornucopia Institute adds in comments that the tocopherols should be extracted without synthetic solvents and derived only from non-GMO vegetable oil. It also argues NOSB should encourage the production of organic tocopherols by placing an expiration on the two listings for synthetic and non-organic tocopherols.

Other flashpoints

The debate around whether hydroponics should be certified as organic also likely will be a flashpoint at the meeting, as previously outlined in FoodNavigator-USA.

Other discussion points that could cause fireworks include the cumulative impact of phosphates, the removal of ivemectin from the National List, organic seed preservation and excluded methods terminology. 

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