The US Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service, which oversees the organic program, argued in an April 4 Federal Register notice that carrageenan will remain on the National List of non-organic ingredients that can be used in organic products because “public comments reported that potential substitutes do not adequately replicate the function of carrageenan across a broad scope of uses,” including as a thickener and emulsifier.
This decision directly contradicts the recommendation of the National Organic Standards Board, which recommended removing carrageenan from the National List because it determined alternative materials, such as gellan gum, guar gum and xanthan gum, were sufficient substitutes for use in organic products. The recommendation came after a standard sunset review of 17 nonorganic substances that had temporary permission to be used in organic products through 2018. Of those ingredients, carrageenan was the only one that NOSB recommended letting expire.
While the safety of carrageenan has been debated in the past and repeatedly found by regulators to meet standards, NOSB’s decision was not based on the ingredient’s safety. Rather it was based on the belief there were sufficient other organic options to replace it in formulations.
NOSB’s decision did not sit well with many in the industry who argued in public comments at face-to-face meetings in April and November 2016 as well as written comments that the alternatives listed by NOSB did not meet the same quality bar set by carrageenan.
For example, the Natural Products Association argued at the time that carrageenan is a “vital, naturally-sourced food additive in organic foods and infant formula,” which FDA and international regulatory authorities have repeatedly found to be safe.
United4FoodScience, which represents a laundry list of stakeholders, including the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the International Dairy Foods Association, the International Food Additives Council and others, agreed that carrageenan was essential to leveling the playing field for organic products to compete against non-organic options “on sensory attributes such as taste and texture”
It argued in a post following NOSB’s recommendation that the decision “runs counter to the National Organic Program’s mission,” and “may lead to consumers deselecting organic foods altogether.”
United4FoodScience also argued at the time that NOSB’s recommendation that decision to “target” carrageenan was “a loss for sound food science.”
In an April 5 comment, DuPont Nutrition & Health, lauded USDA's decision as one based on "facts and science." Michiel van Genugten, global product line manager of seaweed extracts and colors at the company added: "This will allow organic food producers to continue to use a safe, versatile ingredient they rely on, and for consumers to enjoy the foods they know and love."
USDA's decision 'raises serious concerns'
Other industry stakeholders that supported NOSB’s decision see USDA’s choice to ignore the review board’s recommendation as a dangerous precedent that erodes the organic seal’s authority – especially on the heels of the agency’s recent move to table enhanced animal welfare standards for the organic industry.
“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,” Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, argues in a written statement.
“The USDA’s decision to ignore the NOSB’s recommendation raises serious concerns about the future of the organic label,” she added.
Consumers Union explained in the statement that the 15-member citizen advisory NOSB was created to ensure decisions impacting the organic industry “are made with broad stakeholder input, and are not ultimately decided by the USDA in response to lobbying by a handful of companies.”
Following USDA’s decision, carrageenan will continue to be allowed in organic products with a new sunset date of May 29, 2023.