USDA shrinks the list of artificial materials allowed to produce organic foods
The list of artificial ingredients and processing aids that are allowed in the production of food labeled “organic” just got a little shorter. On August 3, 2016, the USDA removed tetrasodium pyrophosphate, egg white lysozyme, and the chemical processing aids cyclohexylamine, diethylaminoethanol and octadecylamine from the list of artificial and non-organic materials that are allowed in organic food production.
- The USDA removed one phosphate food additive from the National List. But why did the USDA remove one while leaving four others?
Tetrasodium pyrophosphate, a food additive used in vegetarian meat alternatives, was removed from the National List by the USDA on August 3, in response to a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) vote in 2015. Tetrasodium pyrophosphate is one of many food additives that can be categorized as a phosphate food additive, and it was one of only five phosphate food additives that had been allowed in organic production. Prior to the vote, Consumers Union, in written and oral comments to the NOSB, shared findings of scientific studies published in recent years that raise concerns regarding negative health impacts of phosphate food additives.
While the removal of tetrasodium pyrophosphate may look like a victory for consumers, the NOSB voted not to remove the four others—sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, potassium phosphate and sodium acid pyrophosphate—which will continue to be allowed.
Although phosphorus is an essential nutrient, its excess in the diet has been linked to tissue damage by a variety of mechanisms. Research that wasn’t available to the NOSB when it first reviewed phosphate food additives now suggests that disordered regulation of certain hormones by high dietary phosphorus may be key factors contributing to renal failure, atherosclerosis, and osteoporosis. Phosphate food additives are especially concerning since they are more readily absorbed during digestion than naturally occurring phosphorus in foods, and can lead to a higher phosphorus load.
Given the scientific indications that all of the phosphorus additives raise health concerns, the question arises: why would the NOSB disallow only one? The NOSB’s decision to remove only tetrasodium pyrophosphate and keep the four others seems not to reflect research on their impact on human health, nor any essential need to use these additives in production. Rather, the decision seems to be responsive to the preferences of the manufacturers. Unlike the other phosphate additives, no food manufacturer came forward during the meetings to argue in favor of tetrasodium pyrophosphate.
The organic label is unique: it is backed by federal law and comprehensive federal regulations that determine how food labeled “organic” can be grown, handled and processed. Federal law prohibits the use of artificial materials, which means artificial fertilizers and pesticides on organic farms, artificial processing aids in food processing factories, and artificial ingredients in organic foods are all prohibited. But there are exceptions.
Recognizing that some artificial materials may be harmless to human health and the environment, compatible with organic production, and essential for producing organic foods, the organic law allows materials that meet these criteria to be temporarily exempt from the blanket prohibition. Consumers Union has consistently urged decision makers to give equal weight to each criterion: human and environmental health, organic compatibility, essentiality for production.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a federal advisory board of 15 citizens from various sectors of the organic community, reviews petitions for artificial materials and decides whether an artificial material meets the criteria. If approved by a two-thirds supermajority vote of the NOSB, the USDA adds the material to the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances,” for a five-year period. Every five years, the NOSB reviews the material again, in a process called sunset review, to determine whether the material still meets the criteria and the exemption should remain in place.
In 2015, the NOSB performed sunset reviews for many artificial materials whose exemptions were set to expire in 2016 and 2017. In our written and oral comments to the NOSB, Consumers Union urged the removal of many of these, including cyclohexylamine, diethylaminoethanol and octadecylamine, chemicals that are used as boiler additives for sterilizing food packaging. Natural alternatives exist, and we pointed out to the NOSB that these chemicals should never have been approved for use in organics in the first place. These three chemicals are among those that the USDA removed from the National List on August 3.
In our comments to the NOSB in 2015, Consumers Union also urged a careful review and consideration of emerging research to ensure a thorough understanding of phosphate food additives and their potential impact on public health. Because federal law sets a higher bar for food additives in organic foods than in conventional foods, unless food additives are shown to be harmless to human health, they should not be allowed in organic foods. Given recent research, we believe the NOSB cannot conclude that phosphate food additives are harmless to human health.
For years, we have argued to the NOSB that it should give equal weight to all criteria specified in the law governing organic food production: impact on human health and the environment, essentiality, and compatibility. We have also argued that all criteria should be met, so if a material fails one of the criteria, it shouldn’t be allowed.
We also urge the NOSB to carefully consider the meaning of “essentiality”: an ingredient is essential only if an organic version of a food product could not be made without it. Too often at NOSB meetings, board members will consider the essentiality criterion to be met if one manufacturer steps forward to say that they are currently using it, even if their competitors have found a way to make an identical organic product without it.
When a consumer sees an organic product with an artificial ingredient, like sodium phosphate in the ingredients list of an organic mac ‘n cheese box, and finds a similar product with a different brand name right next to it on the store shelf that doesn’t contain the artificial ingredient, and yet both carry the same USDA Organic seal, it raises questions about the NOSB’s interpretation of “essentiality.” More importantly, it also raises bigger questions about the integrity of the organic label.
For years, we have been fighting for the NOSB to consider all criteria and to not confuse the criterion of “essentiality” with “usefulness” or “convenience.”
That’s because the essentiality criterion has been turned on its head. The NOSB doesn’t ask whether the material is essential, but rather whether anyone is using it. If the answer is yes, the material is likely to stay on the National List.
We saw this happen a couple of years ago with another ingredient that was undergoing a sunset review, tragacanth gum. At the Fall 2014 meeting, the NOSB appeared set to vote to remove this ingredient.
Tragacanth gum is derived from a small shrub grown in the Middle East, specifically in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Syria. Since the conventional version of tragacanth gum is on the National List as an allowed substance, the crops from which these gums are derived are not managed organically. This means that there are no restrictions in terms of pesticide use. And since the crops are grown abroad, basic U.S. regulatory restrictions or precautions for the use of toxic synthetic pesticides that conventional domestic farmers would need to follow, do not apply for tragacanth gum. Even pesticides that are banned in the U.S. could be used to produce this gum, which ends up in our organic foods.
An organically produced gum, organic gum arabic, provides an organic alternative to tragacanth gum, and is available to organic food manufacturers.
After several months of opportunities for public comment, only comments like those from Consumers Union, arguing for its removal, had been officially submitted to the Board. No manufacturer had come forward to argue for keeping it. But the day before the vote, a certifying agency’s representative circulated a letter internally to the NOSB members, from a food manufacturer stating they use conventional tragacanth gum in an organic candy product. This manufacturer asked the NOSB to keep tragacanth gum on the National List. The next day, the NOSB voted to keep tragacanth gum on the List.
The NOSB’s decision to remove tetrasodium pyrophosphate and keep the four other phosphates boils down not to their concerns with impact on human health, or to essentiality, but rather to the fact that no food manufacturer came forward during the meetings to argue in its favor.
Food manufacturers did come forward to tell the NOSB that they are using the four other phosphate food additives in their organic products, so the NOSB voted to keep those allowed.
This was supported by the USDA, which wrote in the August 3 final rule: “no public comments were received supporting the continued use of tetrasodium pyrophosphate in processed organic products.” In other words, it isn’t that the NOSB found that this particular food additive wasn’t essential, but rather it found the ingredient to be essentially useless.
Although the NOSB’s votes in 2015 and the USDA’s final rule in response to these votes mean the National List just became a little shorter, other artificial and non-organic processing aids and ingredients that we don’t think belong in foods labeled “organic” remain on the National List.
At its upcoming meeting, the NOSB will be tested again on how it will vote when faced with both scientific findings on negative impacts on human health and tremendous industry pressure to keep a food additive on the National List. Carrageenan will undergo sunset review at the NOSB’s fall 2016 meeting. Research points to undegraded carrageenan (the type used in foods) causing inflammation. Laboratory research in animals has shown ulcerative colitis-like disease and intestinal lesions and ulcerations in some animals.  Additional studies in animals have shown carrageenan may act as a promoter of colon tumors. 
Consumers Union urged the NOSB to remove carrageenan from the National List at its last sunset review, in 2012, and we have already submitted both written and or comments arguing for its removal from the National List because it fails the criterion of harmlessness to human health.
And like carrageenan, the four other phosphate food additives that are currently allowed in organic foods fail to meet all the criteria in the organic law. But because they are useful and convenient to the food manufacturers who make organic processed foods, removing them from the National List presents a challenge. We will continue to be at the National Organic Standards Board meetings, demanding that the NOSB stand up for consumers—ensuring all criteria are met, including harmlessness to human health—rather than bowing to industry interests by voting to remove only the materials that manufactures aren’t using anyway.
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