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USDA decides to allow carrageenan in organic food despite health concerns and vote by the National Organic Standards Board

Consumers Union warns that decision represents troubling precedent for organics

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today took another step to undermine the integrity of the USDA Organic label on food by reauthorizing the use of carrageenan, a food additive whose safety is questionable, according to Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports.  Studies have indicated that it can cause gastrointestinal inflammation, and laboratory research in animals has shown ulcerative colitis-like disease and intestinal lesions and ulcerations in some animals.

The USDA’s decision comes after the National Organic Standards Board voted in 2016 to remove carrageenan from the list of ingredients allowed for organic products since it is no longer considered essential, and after they heard substantial testimony about its potential health impacts.

“Today’s decision by the USDA represents a troubling precedent that undermines the integrity of the organic label,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Senior Policy Analyst with Consumers Union.    “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.   The USDA’s decision to ignore the NOSB’s recommendation raises serious concerns about the future of the organic label.”

The National Organic Standards Board is a 15-member citizen advisory board established by the Organic Foods Production Act. This federal law also requires that foods with the USDA Organic label contain at least 95% organic ingredients, and that the remaining 5% are thoroughly reviewed for safety and other criteria by the NOSB. This is meant to establish a safeguard to ensure that these decisions are made with broad stakeholder input, and are not ultimately decided by the USDA in response to lobbying by a handful of companies. For several decades, the USDA has faithfully implemented its recommendations on changes to the National List, as required by law.

Carrageenan has no nutritional value; rather, food processors add carrageenan as a stabilizer and to change the texture, structure and physical appearance of foods, like dairy foods, plant-based beverages, and lunch meats.  The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) requires that prohibited materials may be added to the National List for a five-year period only if the use of such substances would not be harmful to human health or the environment, and only if it is considered essential because no alternatives exist.

Given consumer demand for organic foods without potentially harmful ingredients, many companies have responded by eliminating carrageenan from their organic product formulations, demonstrating that alternatives exist and carrageenan is not essential. The National Organic Standards Board, after consultation with consumers, producers and retailers, voted in November 2016 to prohibit this additive in foods with the USDA organic label.

Last month, the USDA withdrew a regulation developed over ten years by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in consultation with organic consumers and producers that would have assured consumers that meat, poultry, dairy and eggs labeled USDA Organic came from animals raised on farms that met high standards for animal welfare. Chicken producers who could not meet the new standards lobbied for the withdrawal.

Michael McCauley, mmccauley@consumer.org, 415-431-6747, ext 7606 or 415-902-9537 (cell)