PCC comments for organic integrity

October 5, 2015

National Organic Standards Board
1400 Independence Avenue, SW Room 2648-So, Ag Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250-0268

Docket # AMS-NOP-15-0037-0001

Dear NOSB members,

PCC Natural Markets is the largest consumer-owned retail grocer in the United States. We have 10 stores in five cities of western Washington and more than 56,000 active member households.

Our commitment to organic agriculture is built into our overarching Ends Policy, where it’s stated our overall purpose is to create an environment where the organic supply chain can thrive.

We maintain certification as an organic handler for our produce, meat and seafood, bulk grocery, deli cheese, and espresso departments to ensure organic integrity is maintained to the shopper’s cart. At least 95 percent of the produce sold is certified organic.

We also are an active participant in the Non-GMO Project to meet shoppers’ demands for testing to verify label claims.

We have comments on the following topics:

  1. Crops Committee

  2. Handling Committee

  3. Policy Development


Use of fracking waste “produced” water in organic crop systems

PCC Natural Markets recently has had to field shoppers’ concerns about the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) waste water (called “produced water” by industry) in organic crop systems. We sell an organic raisin brand, Sunview, recently called out by Mother Jones magazine for using fracking waste water.

We do not know if there’s a health risk in foods produced with water containing a number of toxic compounds. We have no satisfactory answers to address retailer and customer worries. Further investigation and followup is necessary. We ask NOSB and NOP to act quickly and sincerely to preserve consumer trust in organic certification.

The Residue Testing Rule authorizes certifiers to test finished product, specifically for heavy metals, which independent lab tests have found in the irrigation water for Sunview. Sunview’s certifier, CCOF, did not give a straight yes or no answer when we asked directly if it had tested the raisins, as authorized.

The Los Angeles Times alone has published 10 articles this year on the use of fracking waste water in agriculture. In May, the LA Times reported the Chief Scientist for the advocacy group, Water Defense, Scott Smith, spent two years studying the oil wastewater used for irrigation in Kern County, California, where Sunview organic raisins originate as well as table grapes, pistachios, oranges and other citrus. Smith collected samples from 10 points, from a number of depths at each site, through a process he says is more comprehensive than the sampling state and local authorities require. Smith has a history of consulting for the Environmental Protection Agency and other government offices on more than 50 oil spills.

According to the Times, “The samples Smith collected contained acetone and methylene chloride, solvents used to degrease equipment or soften thick crude oil, at concentrations higher than he had seen at oil spill disaster sites. The water also contained C20 and C34, hydrocarbons found in oil, according to ALS Environmental, the lab that analyzed Smith’s samples.”

Acetone reportedly was found in 2014 testing but not in a March 2015 test. An accompanying graphic cited levels of three chemicals in untreated oil field water:

  • oil, 240,000-480,000 parts per million
  • acetone, 440-530 parts per billion
  • methylene chloride, 82-89 parts per billion

The graphic did not include the levels found in tests of treated water:

  • oil, 130-1,300 parts per million
  • acetone, 57-79 parts per billion
  • methylene chloride, 26-56 parts per billion

Other recent tests of irrigation water supplied by Chevron, also found benzene, a carcinogen, at higher concentrations than what is allowed in California drinking water. The state has not set a standard for benzene in irrigation water.

Chevron’s report also reported finding toluene and xylene, two volatile organics that probably would volatize out of final products. Nonetheless, they are toxic to the environment and farmworkers, which organic consumers certainly care about.

As for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), research suggests we might not find much. Here’s a study that looked at uptake of PAHs by salt marsh plants grown in highly contaminated sediments (up to 900 ppm total PAHs) that found increased levels of PAHs in the roots, but not in the leaves compared to plants grown in non-contaminated sediments.

More to the point is a Danish study finding “Uptake of trace elements and PAHs by fruit and vegetables grown in contaminated soils.” It does suggest differences may be found for trace elements compared to PAHs.

The levels of contaminants being found in the irrigation water should be compared with the contamination levels found in the Danish soils. If they are much higher than those found in soils from the Danish study, testing would be warranted.

Assistance from labs and scientists that have experience assessing and cleaning up Superfund sites should be engaged.

As the Times pointed out, “Until now, government authorities have required only limited testing of recycled irrigation water, checking for naturally occurring toxins, such as salts and arsenic, using decades-old monitoring standards. They haven’t screened for the range of chemicals used in modern oil production.

Certifiers, distributors, retailers, the NOSB, and the NOP must be responsible, honest and transparent to tackle this concern before us all.

The drought in California is pushing this issue faster than we may be ready for. Beyond Pesticides (at least) has looked at other forms of water recycling and found plenty of reason for concern. It’s not just “produced water” or “recycled water” since water pumped out of aquifers (particularly in places such as California’s Central Valley) have water sources that have seen huge impacts from intensive conventional agriculture.

Yes, this is complicated. We need both short term and longer term strategies. No amount of obfuscation, diversion or spin will transform independent findings that filtered and treated irrigation water, purchased deliberately like any input, is polluted with toxic compounds known to harm environmental and human health. As one concerned shopper said, “If our nation’s so-called leaders and regulators of the food industry want to call something Organic when it’s not Organic, what else are they doing?”

Certainly, use of produced water from fracking in organic cropping systems is an emerging concern — not just in California but for every region with sustained drought and fracking.

The most elemental foundation of organic standards is that inputs to a cropping system have an impact on the integrity of the food produced. It’s why the arguments get so granular over what should, or should not be allowed. Consumers who believe the organic seal ensures a “clean and uncontaminated” food product are saying if it’s contaminated, it shouldn’t be labeled organic.

We urge NOSB to consider a moratorium on use of recycled fracking waste water within the context of its work on contamination in farm inputs, which we strongly support.

We ask the Crops Committee to prepare an updated document on use of recycled fracking waste water for the public to review for the fall meeting. It is the responsible course of action.


Fish oils (from our April comments)

Fish oil currently is listed at §205.606 as a nonorganic, nonagricultural product allowed as an ingredient in or on processed products labeled “organic.” We understand it is up for 2017 Sunset. PCC Natural Markets recently researched fish oil to address concerns.

Production of fish oil today often violates the fundamental tenets of organic food production to “promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.” Most fish oil for human consumption comes from lower levels in the marine food chain, such as anchovy, mackerel, salmon, sprat, sardine and herring. But fish oils also come from deep sea fish and top-level predators, including cod, pollock, swordfish, spearfish, marlin and tuna. Depletion of top marine-feeders, such as tuna, is of great concern. Excessive harvesting of fish from lower levels in the food chain has substantial impacts on the food supply for predators.

The anchovy fishery in northern Peru provides 73 percent of omega-3 fish oils. Industrial fleets there generally are well regulated by the Peruvian government. But some parts of the fishery do not adhere to quotas and little is known about whether all boats comply with regulations. Another problem is that the industrial fishery allegedly is causing pollution and social inequity in coastal communities.

Morocco is another source of anchovies for fish oil. There’s a lack of transparency in how the fishery is managed and there appear to be no quotas.

There are additional ecological impacts beyond overfishing. In the Arctic cod fishery, which provides 12 percent of fish oils, fishing vessels use equipment causing moderately high by-catch. In the Alaskan pollock fishery, which provides 4 percent of fish oils, sensitive species live on the ocean floors. Methods of fishing for pollock can threaten these species.

Some fish oils come from farmed salmon. Salmon farming is infamous for polluting the ocean with waste and antibiotics, spreading disease to wild species, and threatening biodiversity. Farmed salmon also have been found to contain 16 times the levels of PCBs as wild salmon. Fish oil from farmed salmon never should be allowed in organics.

The presence of other contaminants, such as DDT, mercury and dioxins in fish oils, largely come from farmed fish inputs and would erode consumer trust in the organic label. Fish are known to bioconcentrate toxic substances.

Several studies have examined contaminants in fish oil supplements and have found wide variation in levels, including products labeled “purified.” For instance, a 2011 test of 15 top-selling fish oil supplements by “Consumer Reports” found four fish oil supplements contained traces of PCBs.

Governmental fish oil quality standards do not exist in the United States.

NOSB must consider whether organic consumers are adequately protected from contaminants in fish oil by the current listing.

NOSB also must consider ecological balance and biodiversity when allowing fish oil from wild fish. These are fundamental considerations that organic consumers will expect as NOP moves toward establishing a framework for organic aquaculture.

Tocopherols (from our April comments)

According to the Linus Paul Institute, “Synthetic alpha tocopherol is less bioavailable and only half as potent” as natural tocopherols.

When the body needs vitamin E, it will draw from this weaker, synthetic version in storage but is unable to perform the roles in the body that make this vitamin essential. Synthetic tocopherols are more likely to contribute to bleeding problems when consumed in excess.

These concerns raise questions about Earth’s Best use of synthetic tocopherols as an ingredient in infant formula. Natural tocopherols, derived from liquid vegetable oils, are widely available. Synthetic tocopherols are not derived from a natural food source and instead may be derived from petroleum.

We ask the NOSB to prohibit synthetic tocopherols in organic foods, most notably from infant formula, because they are harmful to human health.

Synthetic tocopherols also are inconsistent with consumer expectations and unnecessary since natural tocopherols are widely available.

Palm olein (from our April comments)

We’re also concerned about Earth’s Best use of palm olein in organic infant formula.
It’s one of only two items in our stores with palm olein. The other is not organic.

Palm olein (PO) may be solvent-treated and/or hydrogenated, but expeller-pressed options seem to be available. This ingredient is not “good for you” and there’s little research on effects.

According to a 2006 study (J Am Coll Nutr. 2006 Apr;25(2):117-22): “The use of PO in infant formulas to match the human milk content of palmitic acid has “unintended physiological consequences including diminished intestinal absorption of fat, palmitic acid and calcium, and lower bone mass.

We urge the NOSB to prohibit palm olein from certified organic foods.

Sodium lactate (from our April comments)

In 2006, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service received information raising doubts that sodium lactate – at levels approved for flavoring – was consistent with the meaning even of “natural.” According to the Federal Register (Vol. 74, No. 176, Monday, September 14, 2009), USDA had learned sodium lactate (as well as potassium lactate and calcium lactate) may have an antimicrobial effect at levels approved for flavoring.

Hormel Foods notably argued against allowing sodium lactate in meats labeled “natural.” We also respect FSIS’s conclusion that an earlier allowance for sodium lactate (from a corn source) in “natural” meat and poultry “may have been in error.”

Organic certification should mean more than a “natural” claim. It would be incongruous to allow such an ingredient with multiple — and variable — technical effects that do not qualify even for USDA “natural.”

See more on the FSIS history about sodium lactate here.

Celery powder

Celery naturally contains a high concentration of natural nitrate (NO3), which converts to nitrites after processing, conveying a preservative action in the finished food.

Most available studies show nitrates are higher in non-organic celery. This is acknowledged on page 177 in this 2012 “Comparative Study On Mineral Content of Organic and Conventional Carrot, Celery, and Red Beet Juices.” Table 4, however, acknowledges at least one comparison found organic celery contains MORE nitrates than conventional, although with wide variance. The study also showed the conventional had more than double the ammonium levels.

Table 4, however, documents that nitrate levels in non-organic celery are roughly three times higher than in organic celery, which would translate roughly to equivalent levels in the finished powder and higher levels of nitrites conveying preservative properties.

Regardless of whether organic or non-organic contains more nitrate (converting to nitrites to act as preservative), arguments for renewing non-organic celery juice powder on the National List are not defensible.

Since organic celery power is widely available, non-organic celery powder no longer should be allowed in organic food production.

We urge NOSB to delist non-organic celery powder and to require use of organic celery powder in organic products that rely on it for its preservative action, such as sausages, bacon and other processed foods.

We urge NOSB to sunset non-organic celery powder.

Potassium phosphate

We understand potassium phosphate is used typically to control pH in milk products and sometimes is a source of mineral potassium and /or phosphorus.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has a study titled, “Phosphate Additives in Food-a Health Risk,” which raises serious concern about its use as an additive to consumable products.

The study says “… a study of patients in stage 5 Chronic Kidney Disease (with an annual mortality of about 20 percent) revealed that 12 percent of all deaths in this group were attributable to an elevated serum phosphate concentration.

“Recently, a high-normal serum phosphate concentration has also been found to be an independent predictor of cardiovascular events and mortality in the general population. Therefore, phosphate additives in food are a matter of concern and their potential impact on health may well have been underappreciated.

“In view of the high prevalence of CKD and the potential harm caused by phosphate additives to food, the public should be informed that added phosphate is damaging to health. Furthermore, calls for labeling the content of added phosphate in food are appropriate.”

” … recent studies have shown that the association between high phosphate concentrations and higher mortality is not restricted to persons with renal disease; it can also be observed in persons with cardiovascular disease and even in the general population. High-normal serum phosphate concentrations are associated with coronary calcification in young, healthy men (6) and were found to be a predictor of cardiovascular events in the Framingham study (7).

We see the NOSB subcommittee had a split vote, 3 to remove, 2 to relist, 1 absent.

We support Sunsetting this material. It should not be allowed in products labeled “Made with Organic.”

Sodium phosphate

We understand sodium phosphate, similar to potassium phosphate, is used in organic dairy foods as an emulsifier and raises similar concerns. Sodium phosphate, in fact, is just one of some 45 different phosphate-containing food additives used in hundreds of processed foods.

Consumers can’t easily know this additive is in food, since food companies aren’t required to list phosphate levels on the “Nutrition Facts” panel. Food companies are not required even to analyze foods for phosphate levels. There’s reason for concern about harm to consumers.

Janeen Leon, MS, RD, LD, a researcher at the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland has spent much of her recent career researching phosphate food additives. She’s quoted on the Rodale website saying, “We’re finding that, even among healthy adults, people with phosphate levels at the higher end of what’s considered normal have higher mortality rates.”

“In addition to chronic kidney disease and increased mortality rates,” she says, “phosphate additives have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, they’re thought to accelerate the aging process, and they interfere with the way your body activates vitamin D. Too much phosphorous can also lead to weakened bones. In much of the professional research on heart disease, Leon says, ‘Doctors are making comments like, Is this the next trans fat? Is this the next cholesterol?'”

We see the subcommittee voted 2 to Sunset, 4 to relist, and 1 absent.

Based on warnings about phosphate food additives, we strongly support Sunsetting this material and prohibiting its use in Certified Organic and “Made with organic” foods.

Magnesium carbonate

We understand this alkali is used for sour cream, butter, ice cream, cacao products and canned peas in “Made with Organic” products only, and as a flow agent for salt.

We see the subcommittee has stated it is “non-essential” and that some processors are using it.

We support the subcommittee’s unanimous vote to Sunset this material, based on the finding that it is not essential. We urge NOSB to prohibit its use even in “Made with Organic” products.


NOP NOSB relations

We are distressed that NOP has ignored numerous NOSB recommendations vital for the organic seal to keep up to date with available information and market demands. These include:

  • Animal welfare
    Provisions determined after voluminous public input and work by NOSB members to ensure improved living conditions and to prohibit some common physical mutilations to animals have been ignored by NOP. The result is that every day, we see shoppers choose “grass-fed” and “pastured” animal products over organic because of their desire to support fundamental animal welfare assurances.

    The failure to implement NOSB-recommended animal welfare provisions is causing the organic sector to lose sales.
  • Hydroponics
    NOSB determined in 2010 that U.S. organic law requires plants to be grown in soil with the focus on enhancing soil fertility. The board determined that growing plants in water or air, using a mixture of natural and synthetic nutrients, does not meet the letter or spirit of OFPA.

    Although no rules for hydroponics are in force, NOP has allowed certification of hydroponic operations (by USDA accredited agents) to grow plants in synthetic additives, in artificial lighting, and to label the products organic.
  • Nanotechnology
    The NOSB recommended a total prohibition on nanomaterials in organic food and packaging in 2010.

    Yet NOP, in announcing producers can petition for use of nanomaterials in organics, in effect, has opened the door for products produced with nanotechnology.
  • Carrageenan
    Significant research by independent scientists has linked carrageenan to gastrointestinal inflammation, including higher rates of gastrointestinal tract tumors and cancerous conditions in laboratory animals.

    NOP has not enacted NOSB’s recommendation by annotation to prohibit carrageenan from use in organic infant formula.
  • NOSB no longer sets its own agenda.
    NOSB no longer can set its own agenda to address issues brought before it by the organic community, including setting a review on nanotechnology. Now, it appears the NOP must “allow” such a discussion for it to take place.
  • Sunset provision reversed without public input

We encourage the NOP to recognize these important NOSB recommendations and to implement them as a priority.

Continuing to ignore them undermines incentive to attract or keep good NOSB members and disrespects their expertise and countless hours as volunteers. Please honor the process outlined by OFPA and implement the NOSB’s recommendations.

Submitted by Trudy Bialic, Director, Public Affairs

Related reading

Fall 2021 Comments to NOSB

PCC submitted written comments and provided oral testimony for the virtual fall 2021 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s advisory committee to the National Organic Program (NOP).

Continued Support for Justice for Black Farmers Act

As members of both National Co+op Grocers and the National Organic Coalition, PCC endorsed the Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2021, introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Alma S. Adams, Ph.D. (NC-12).