USDA Reverses Course on Carrageenan Rule, Says It's 'Necessary' for Organics

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USDA Reverses Course on Carrageenan Rule, Says It's 'Necessary' for  Organics

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Despite the recommendation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the USDA says it will not move to keep carrageenan, a controversial food additive, out of certified organic food.

The ingredient, an extract of seaweed, is used as a thickener and emulsifier in liquids and ice creams as well as other processed foods. The National Organic Program allows the inclusion of non-organic ingredients in certified organic foods if there’s no organic equivalent and the additives provide a vital function. Carrageenan fell under that rule. But studies linking the ingredient to digestive issues pushed carrageenan into a controversy that led to fierce debate within the organic community, much of it spearheaded by the industry watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute.

“This is the latest instance of the Trump/Purdue administration siding with powerful agribusiness interests. They are running roughshod over the will of Congress that established the NOSB as a buffer to insulate organic regulations from corrupt corporate lobbyists,” Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, said in a statement.

While many brands and scientists contend that carrageenan is a safe food additive, the NOSB, which advises the National Organic Program, eventually voted to revoke its recommendation of the ingredient from the approved list in 2016.

“Iconic brands in the organic industry, like Organic Valley, Stonyfield, and Eden Foods, all looked at the research, listened to the concerns of their customers, and purged carrageenan from their products,” stated Dr. Linley Dixon, Senior Scientist at The Cornucopia Institute.

But NOSB recommendations aren’t rules -- and the USDA has sovereignty over the National Organic Program, a program that’s been highly criticized under the Trump administration. And despite the positive consumer response to products that removed carrageenan, the USDA claimed it "found sufficient evidence in public comments to the NOSB that carrageenan continues to be necessary for handling agricultural products because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitutes."

Cornucopia says there was enough evidence to ban the substance back in 2005 when the European Commission made recommendations on maximum carrageenan levels to reduce the risk of digestive disorders and a small risk of cancer.“This type of subterfuge by powerful agribusiness might have been successful at the FDA, or before European regulators, but the NOSB, carrying out the mandate of the U.S. Congress, weighed current evidence and voted to protect organic consumers by banning this dangerous material,” stated Cornucopia’s Kastel.

“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,” said Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides and a former member of the NOSB.

“The vote of the National Organic Standards Board to remove carrageenan from the list of approved substances was based on their careful review of the available evidence, which clearly shows that exposure to carrageenan causes inflammation and may contribute to human disease, including diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer,” said Joanne Tobacman, M.D., a physician-researcher at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago who published the most prominent independently funded studies of carrageenan.

“It is unconscionable to permit the continued use of carrageenan in organic foods after this decisive vote, and reflects the impact of commercial interests over science.”

The USDA was criticized recently for a decision to reduce the animal welfare regulations required for certified organic animal products, a move that has led many consumers and brands to seek alternatives. “[C]onsumers, regrettably, need to do their own research over and above looking for the organic seal,” said Kastel.

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