When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 it set up an independent advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that, uniquely, has statutory power. Any synthetic input or ingredient used in organic farming or food production must be reviewed by the NOSB to assure that it is not a threat to human health or the environment.
The Cornucopia report charges the USDA with "stacking" the NOSB with agribusiness executives that all too often have "sold out" the interests of organic farmers and consumers.
"The organic community came together and actually asked the government, in order to maintain a level playing field and organic integrity, to regulate our industry," said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute. "How many other industries have ever asked the federal government for tough regulations and enforcement?"
In order to placate concerns of federal involvement in the nascent organic industry, Congress specifically earmarked the majority of the 15 seats on the NOSB for farmers, consumers, scientists and environmentalists as a way to balance the power of commercial interests involved in organic food manufacturing, marketing and retail sales.
"Many in the industry generally thought this system of shared power, with regard to synthetics in organics, was working until we received a wake-up call at the NOSB's meeting late last year in Savannah, Georgia," Kastel noted.
At the Savannah meeting a giant Dutch-based multi-national conglomerate, Royal DSM N.V./Martek Biosciences, partnered with the nation's largest dairy processor, Dean Foods, to muscle through approval of DHA/ARA synthetic nutrient oils. The additives, derived from genetically mutated algae and soil fungus, are processed with petrochemical solvents, grown in genetically engineered corn, and formulated for use in infant formula, dairy and other products with a myriad of other unreviewed synthetic ingredients.
"All these elements of the Martek Biosciences products, along with outstanding safety and efficacy concerns, made them inappropriate and illegal in organics," said Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Food and Farm Policy for Cornucopia. "So after witnessing this travesty, we decided to take a closer look at how other synthetic additives have been approved for use in organic foods in the past."
What The Cornucopia Institute investigation found is disturbing to many organic industry stakeholders.
Since the NOSB was not constituted by Congress to be a scientific body, it relies on legally mandated technical reviews, by impartial scientists, of any synthetic materials that are petitioned for use in organics.
Cornucopia found that a small handful of scientists, working for corporate agribusiness, supplied the "independent" analyses to the board. In one example, an executive for Ralston Purina/Beech Nut, Dr. Richard Theuer, authored 45 of 50 technical reviews during a two-year period in the 1990s.
As a case study Cornucopia used the food ingredient carrageenan, a stabilizer and thickening agent that was initially approved for use in organic food in the mid-1990s. Theuer, and two other agribusiness-related food scientists, reviewed carrageenan without emphasizing its impacts on human health and the environment. Carrageenan, derived from seaweed, has been widely used in conventional foods for decades.
"Carrageenan is a well-documented inflammatory agent that has been found, in thousands of experiments in human cells and animals, to cause harmful effects, and low molecular weight carrageenan has been recognized by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Research Council of the United States as a possible human carcinogen," said Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a leading researcher on carrageenan and its human health impacts at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Low molecular weight, or "degraded," carrageenan has been found, by industry research, to contaminate food-grade carrageenan. Other research has indicated that digestion, heating, bacterial action, and mechanical processing can increase the amount of degraded carrageenan obtained from higher molecular weight carrageenan. "Due to its unique chemical characteristics, there is no safe form of carrageenan," Dr. Tobacman added.
"Those of us in the industry, who are committed to the value of wholesome, nutritious foods that has been the hallmark of the organic industry, need the NOSB and the USDA to carefully and impartially review synthetic ingredients like carrageenan," said Michael Potter, President of Eden Foods, a Clinton, Michigan based manufacturer long viewed as an organic leader.
In an effort to remediate this ongoing scandal, in a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Cornucopia demanded that one of the newest appointees to the board, an executive at the giant California berry producer, Driscolls, be removed since she was placed in a slot Congress reserved for an individual who "owns or operates an organic farming operation."
"We have seen the USDA, in the past, appoint an executive from General Mills, as an example, to a consumer slot on the board. This gross scoffing at the law Congress passed as a safeguard against corporate domination needs to end right now," Kastel said. "We expected better from the Obama administration. Either the USDA will immediately remediate this problem or we will defend the organic law in federal court."