The national list is a sensitive subject right now, and has been discussed or referred to in several media publications in the past week (all are variations of the NY Times article): San Francisco Chronicle , Boston Globe, NY Times, Baltimore Sun, and the Motley Fool. The media, along with organic industry public interest groups, are drawing attention to the use of synthetic products in the production and processing of organic food, along with the role of the NOSB in allowing their use.
When thinking about the general issue of synthetics, I find it useful to review the intent of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). The 1994-1995 article by Clark presents an excellent discussion of the legal aspects of the national list and the NOSB, although the focus is on how the NOSB and NOP were impeding the implementation of the Act (note that the national organic standards were not rolled out until Oct 2002).
- The law presumes that synthetic products are harmful unless a neutral technical review shows otherwise.
- The law presumes that natural materials are harmless, and the burden of proof is to show they are harmful.
For a questionable substance to be allowed, it must be evaluated according to the following 7 criteria (see section m). Further, if an alternative to a synthetic exists, the synthetic substance should not even be evaluated (this ties in to 6 – whether a substance is essential; if a substitute exists the questionable product is clearly not essential).
The list of 7 factors (for evaluation of a substance) as stated in 7 USC § 6518 – National Organic Standards Board:
- potential for negative chemical interaction with other materials used in organic systems;
- the toxicity and mode of action of the substance and of its breakdown products or any contaminants, and their persistence and areas of concentration in the environment;
- the likelihood of environmental degradation caused by manufacturing, using, misusing or disposal of such substance;
the effect of the substance on human health;
the effects of the substance on biological and chemical interactions in the agroecosystem, including the physiological effects of the substance on soil organisms (including the salt index and solubility of the soil), crops and livestock;
the alternatives to using the substance in terms of practices or other available materials (note: This is the “essential” test); and
its compatibility with a system of sustainable agriculture.
One of the primary roles of the National Organic Standards Board is evaluating products for the national list, while ensuring that standard set by the Act is upheld. Thus, the salient points (and also where a commitment to the organic standard is important) are: is a substance “essential;” if synthetic, is the substance benign?; and if natural, is the substance harmful?
The problems potentially caused by personal bias of NOSB members are easy to see, even though the law is clear. An essential product is one that is not available in an organic version, not a product that is expensive (or scarce, which is a factor that contributes to a high price) in an organic version. But if I had a financial interest in either the product using the substance being reviewed, or in the substance itself, I would argue that scarcity is equivalent to unavailability of an essential product.
The need for a neutral technical review (or a least a review that is not pro-industry growth) is clear as well. In the US, the presumptive principle is that something is safe unless it is shown to be unsafe (and the bar for showing that something is unsafe is too high, in my opinion). But if the presumption for synthetics is that they are harmful unless proven otherwise. This suggests that a product like carrageenan should never be used in organic products, since webmd.com reports that:
“Carrageenan is safe for most people in food amounts. There is a chemically altered form of carrageenan that is available in France to treat peptic ulcers. This form might be UNSAFE because there’s some evidence that it might cause cancer.
Special Precautions & Warnings:
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Carrageenan is safe in amounts found in food, but there’s not enough information to know if it’s safe in the larger amounts that are used as medicine. It’s best to stay on the safe side and avoid use in medicinal amounts.”
And the 2002 article/rebuttal in Environmental Health Perspectives indicates that the science is not 100 percent behind the safety of carrageenan.
Again, if my interests were in promoting a product using carrageenan, or if I believed that products are “good” unless proven to be harmful, then I would support the inclusion of this type of questionable product on the list.
This leads me to wonder how the NOSB members are selected. In the next few days, I will post more on the board composition. Christina Bronsing and I are reviewing all board members since the inception of the NOSB, and should have a preliminary analysis completed shortly.