PCC comments for organic integrity

April 14, 2016

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

Docket # AMS-NOP-15-0085

National Organic Standards Board members:

PCC Natural Markets is the nation’s largest consumer-owned grocer with more than 56,000 active member households and 10 stores in five cities that generate $250 million in annual sales. We have maintained organic certification for our meat, produce, deli cheese, bulk and espresso departments as an organic handler since 2002.

PCC employs education, advocacy and community organizing to promote organic foods over non-organic or local foods. We value the opportunity to comment.

Our comments will focus on a few areas of particular concern to us as a retailer and our consumer member/owners.

  1. All NOSB members, general comment

    • use of “produced water” from fracking on organic crops
  2. Handling Committee

  3. Crops committee

    • squid and squid byproducts
  4. Livestock Committee

    • “organic” salmon on U.S. markets without USDA criteria

I. All NOSB members, general comment

Recommendations re: use of “produced water” from fracking

  • moratorium on “produced water” from hydraulic fracking
  • certifiers have authority and should test questionable irrigation water under the Residue Testing Rule
  • certifiers should test finished products under the Residue Testing Rule, if grown with “produced water” from fracking
  • guidance that fracking waste water containing prohibited substances cannot be used, alone or blended, to irrigate organic systems

We urge NOSB again, as we did last fall, to recommend a moratorium on use of “produced water” from recycled fracking oil waste.

A moratorium can be imposed within the context of work on contamination in farm inputs. The Residue Testing Rule authorizes certifiers specifically to test water and finished products.

We ask NOSB to recommend certifiers ask for documentation on when and where “produced water” is used on organic crops – and make it public, in the interest of honesty and transparency. It is the responsible course of action.

We shared several water studies last fall that raised concerns, specifically about organic Sunview raisins, as well as table grapes, pistachios, oranges and other citrus grown in Kern County, Calif. where “produced water” from fracking is confirmed to be used in roughly a 50-50 proportion, blended with other water.

Sunview’s certifier, CCOF, affirmed most recently in a phone call April 4 it has not tested the water or the finished raisins, despite CCOF’s statement on its own website that the Residue Testing Rule includes testing water and finished products:

“… the rule allows tests of plant parts, soil, water, and finished products instead of only farm gate products as was initially proposed. This establishes the rule as an effective compliance monitoring tool. CCOF worked hard to ensure this degree of flexibility, which will help ensure the efficacy of residue testing …” (https://www.ccof.org/nop-improves-organic-integrity)

Despite this well-stated support for testing water and finished products, CCOF instead is suggesting retailers and consumers shift the demand for accountability to water districts and state governments.

Many organic shoppers have called over the past year to ask about use of “produced water” from fracking on organic crops. They are distressed and some are alarmed when told organic certifiers have not and do not plan to exercise a self-declared authority to test.

Certainly, use of “produced water” from fracking waste involves our entire national food system – organic and non-organic. But it is incongruent for organic certifiers to argue that because fracking water is approved for “agriculture” it’s acceptable for organic farms. That argument is not consistent with the fundamental rationale for the additional practices and rules required by the Organic Foods Production Act, above and beyond other USDA regulations.

There is more than ample justification for concern to test.

The Chief Scientist for the advocacy group, Water Defense, spent two years studying the oil wastewater used for irrigation. Scott Smith collected samples from 10 points, from a number of depths at each site, through a process he says is more comprehensive than the sample 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.

“The samples Smith collected,” said the Los Angeles Times, “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.” Tests of treated “produced water” found:

Acetone, 57-79 parts per billion
Methylene chloride, 26-56 parts per billion
Oil, 130-1300 parts per million

Other tests of irrigation water supplied by Chevron found benzene at higher concentrations than is allowed in California drinking water. Benzene is a known carcinogen, but the state has not set a standard for benzene in irrigation water.

Chevron’s report also found toluene and xylene, two volatile organics that are toxic to the environment and farmworkers, which organic consumers and retailers certainly care about.

As the LA Times points out, “Until now, government authorities have required only limited testing of 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.”

NOSB’s continual work on contamination in farm inputs and the Residue Testing Rule provide the framework and tools to gather the information needed to address the concerns.

We ask NOSB to lead the dialogue about heavy metal contamination, the significant technically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM) released during fracking, and the mix of undisclosed, toxic materials in fracking waste water, that may wind up in organic production.

We recommend NOSB and NOP press certifiers to exercise their express statutory responsibility under the Residue Testing Rule to test finished products grown with “produced water,” and the water as an input that raises documented concerns, within the context of work on contamination of farm inputs.

We recommend NOSB and NOP call a moratorium on use of “produced water” until consumer concerns are addressed.

We ask that NOSB recommends NOP guidance that fracking wastewater containing prohibited substances cannot be used as irrigation water in organic systems.

II. Handling Committee

Recommendations:

  • sunset carrageenan
  • prohibit sodium lactate, potassium lactate at levels creating preservative action
  • food contact materials associated with consumer health risks, such as hormone-disrupting bisphenols, must be prohibited
  • ensure that any silicon dioxide is not a product of nanotechnology

Sunset carrageenan

Carrageenan must sunset. We disagree with the discussion document statement that the decision on carrageenan revolves around the premise that humans have varying degrees of sensitivity to carrageenan in the diet, similar to allergenic foods.

Allowing carrageenan as an additive in organic foods is not comparable to food sensitivities. Once allowed, additives become pervasive, creating new sensitivities to all the foods where it is included. It extends the scope of sensitivity from a specific food to an unlimited number of foods. In effect, it erases many organic food choices.

Carrageenan is not a food, It’s an additive, a synthetic additive. No one would buy carrageenan to eat. It is not necessary in food.

Additives, when allowed, become so prevalent it can mean there are no organic choices for consumers. Organic Valley, for instance, adds carrageenan to its whipping cream and in some markets (if not most), there is no other organic whipping cream. Allowing carrageenan in organics can mean consumers can’t buy organic at all.

Providing improved emulsion and mouth feel is not necessary to enjoy fresh whipping cream, or to render whipping cream into its ultimate end purpose, in a whipped form.

Carrageenan is not needed in ice cream either, but it’s almost always an ingredient in ice creams today. It’s not needed in soy or nut milk beverages but is added to most brands and skus.

PCC Natural Markets stopped accepting any new (non-unique) items with carrageenan – organic or non-organic – in 2014, due to repeated shopper feedback that included anecdotal reports of gastrointestinal reactions. After learning of the association, shoppers felt they had been deceived in thinking they were buying wholesome organic foods — especially when some labels list carrageenan as “natural,” when it’s a synthetic.

Certainly, other allergens and foods cause sensitivity in varying degrees, but they get labeled. Without a labeled notice about carrageenan, shoppers would have little or no reason to assume this additive is associated with their problem, not the food itself.

Finally, as an adjuvant, carrageenan violates §205.600 (b) (4), which says, “(4) The substance’s primary use is not as a preservative or to recreate or improve flavors, colors, textures, or nutritive value lost during processing, except where the replacement of nutrients is required by law.”

A substance’s primary use should not be allowed to recreate or improve textures. We maintain, therefore, that carrageenan (and gellan gum) – the two adjuvant emulsifier-stabilizers on the National List – violate OFPA’s intent.

Additives used primarily to recreate or improve texture should be prohibited in certified organic foods, according to §205.600 (b) (4).

Since carrageenan cannot meet organic principles stipulated by OFPA, it must be prohibited.

Sodium lactate, potassium lactate

Recommendation: Prohibit sodium lactate and potassium lactate at levels that create preservative action

Organic consumers do not want or accept artificial preservatives in organic foods.

As we stated in a 2009 letter to NOSB and NOP, the Food Safety and Inspection Service had raised concerns that sodium lactate – at levels approved for flavoring – was not consistent with the meaning of “natural.” The Federal Register said sodium lactate, as well as potassium lactate and calcium lactate, may provide an antimicrobial effect at levels approved for flavoring. Hormel, to its credit, submitted a petition to FSIS, requesting that consistent with FSIS’s longstanding policy on “natural,” a meat or poultry product should not be labeled “natural” unless it does not contain artificial flavorings, color, or other artificial or synthetic ingredients, or chemical preservatives.

FSIS concluded that listing sodium lactate for “natural” meat and poultry products “may have been in error.” FSIS removed the 2005 listing and now provides that use of sodium lactate (or any ingredient known to have multiple technical effects) will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the intended use, level of use, and technical function are consistent with “natural” claims.

Since sodium lactate is not acknowledged by FSIS for use in meat products labeled “natural” (except potentially on a case-by-case basis at the time of label approval), it is logical that sodium lactate and potassium lactate should not be allowed universally or automatically for use in certified organic products.

Consumers expect organic standards to be more rigorous than standards for “natural.” It is not congruent that organic always would allow a preservative that is not always allowed for “natural” meats.

Sodium lactate in particular also is used in the meat-packing industry because it effectively forces cells to hold water.

These synthetic materials have multiple technical functions, including function as synthetic preservatives, and should not be allowed in certified organic foods.

The intended use and technical function are not consistent with the intent and letter of OFPA.

Bisphenols and canned organic foods

Recommendation: support a resolution and guidance to inform manufacturers that food contact materials associated with consumer health and safety concerns, such as hormone-disrupting bisphenols, must be prohibited from use with organic foods.

We realize the gray zone that food contact materials occupy. Nonetheless, given recognized concerns with Bisphenol A, its common substitute Bisphenol S, and other bisphenol compounds, we encourage NOSB to begin the work of addressing contamination of foods from contact substances.

The Breast Cancer Fund released a 64-page report on bisphenol A and other “regrettable substitutes” in canned foods. A coalition of food safety and consumer organizations tested more than 200 brands, including many sold at PCC stores.

Only one of our brands, Thai Kitchen, was found to be using BPA. But others, including Annie’s and Amy’s Kitchen reportedly contain styrene.

As a retailer, we recommend to concerned shoppers that they purchase fresh foods and cook as a way to avoid canned and packaged foods.

We understand that providing processed foods in a shelf-stable condition poses challenges. We have limited knowledge of the commercial canning options but applaud brands, such as Eden, that consistently rely on the safest known technologies.

We encourage NOSB to support a resolution and guidance to inform manufacturers that food contact materials associated with consumer health and safety concerns, such as hormone-disrupting bisphenols, must be prohibited from use with organic foods.

Silicon dioxide

Recommend prohibition

PCC Natural Markets recently has designated silicon dioxide as not acceptable as an additive in organic foods after learning it can be a product of nanotechnology. We have seen it on ingredient panels, and apparently is used as a flow agent with powdered flavorings.

But there is no transparency about when it is or isn’t at the nano scale, which we also have found is not uniformly understood by manufacturers.

We urge NOSB to prohibit this unnecessary additive.

III. Crops committee

Recommendation:

  • oppose adding squid to the National List.
  • consider adding squid byproducts, if several provisions are met.

We understand Shoreside Organics, LLC has petitioned NOSB to include squid and squid byproducts on the National List as a fertilizer for crops. While farmers have used squid as a fertilizer for more than 100 years, modern squid harvesting and processing results in large quantities of waste that place an expensive burden on processors and fisheries to dispose of the waste properly. Improper disposal poses serious environmental risks.

PCC understands that repurposing this waste as a soil amendment in organic crop production presents an opportunity for organic farmers to help reduce waste from another industry.

But for reasons explained in the sections below, PCC does not support the addition of squid to the National List. We cautiously support adding squid byproducts, with the following provisions:

  • Squid byproducts must be sourced from squid harvested for human consumption and must not lead to an increase in wild squid harvesting solely for the purpose of producing fertilizer.
  • Squid byproducts must not be processed in a way that negatively impacts workers’ health.
  • Heavy metals have been reduced in the squid byproducts, particularly in the liver and muscle tissue.

Research has shown a strong presence of heavy metals in squid livers and muscles, indicating the potential incidence of these metals in fish products produced with squid byproducts.

The use of squid byproducts therefore could result in the build-up of heavy metals in the microbial communities in organic soils. Copper, in particular, at high levels is toxic to many of the species that inhabit biodiverse soil.

Please refer to the Center for Food Safety’s comments on this issue for details about studies showing the prevalence of heavy metals including copper, cadmium, mercury and lead, as well as PCBs and PCDDs.

PCC strongly cautions against allowing squid byproduct fertilizers in organic production without requiring manufacturers to address and reduce heavy metal levels in their products.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch – the leading organization on seafood sustainability – released a report expressing concerns regarding the impact of squid harvesting on the surrounding ecosystem, particularly due to bottom trawling, the method commonly used for squid harvesting, and bycatch issues, the unintentional capture of non-target species.

The endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtle particularly is at high risk from squid harvesting. Other species threatened by squid by-catch are the Silvery John Dory, long-finned Pilot whale, Short-beaked common dolphin, and Spiny Dogfish.

In addition, the report states there is moderate concern over squid harvesting practices impacting benthic communities (ecologies at the lowest level in a body of water) from bottom trawling. In 2010, the majority of Long-finned Squid were harvested by bottom trawl gear in mud or sand/mud habitats, which are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of trawling.

Seafood Watch rates squid harvesting as a “Red/Very High Concern” for impact on other species and rates the overall sustainability of U.S. Atlantic squid fisheries as “Yellow/Moderate Concern.” The NOSB must consider the failure of squid harvesting to achieve a “Green/Best Choice” in its assessment of adding squid byproducts to the National List.

Squid processing facilities are also a cause for concern. Squid byproduct processing facilities generate high concentrations of biochemical oxygen demand in wastewater that requires extra processing techniques to handle the discharge. Many of these currently used processing techniques are harmful to workers, such as use of chitosan as a chemical treatment that requires additional hazardous chemicals to improve its effectiveness.

PCC views the waste produced from squid harvesting as an important issue to address, but does not see the production of organic fertilizer from squid and squid byproducts as the best solution.

PCC joins the Center for Food Safety in urging NOSB to send the petition back to the Crops Subcommittee to amend the language to prohibit use of whole squid and to limit the listing to squid byproducts from the human food industry that are processed in a manner that reduces heavy metal contamination, risk to workers, and environmental impacts.

IV. Livestock Committee

Recommendation: Revoke allowance for “organic” salmon in U.S. markets until USDA sets criteria.

Seafood labeled “organic” is appearing in supermarkets across the country, misleading consumers who believe it upholds organic standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. None but a very few organic consumers know there are no USDA organic standards for seafood.

The organic salmon sold by Wegmans and FreshDirect is certified to European Union standards or by independent organizations in many European countries that also have created their own standards. The result is a variety of organic label claims that have little meaning.

European Union and independent European organic organization standards for seafood are not as strict as U.S. organic standards for other foods. They do not equate to what U.S. consumers expect “organic” to mean.

We know of no other product allowed to be labeled “organic” in U.S. markets that does not meet USDA standards.

We ask the NOSB to recommend that NOP revoke allowance of seafood labeled “organic” to be sold in the United States until USDA sets its own standards for organic aquaculture. Consumers expect that a product labeled “organic” meets rigorous standards established by the USDA.

Standards for organic aquaculture set by the EU and independent certifiers allow feed that isn’t certified organic. They don’t include standards for waste disposal. They permit environmentally destructive net pen aquaculture, and are significantly looser on use of antibiotics than U.S. livestock standards.

European standards for “organic” seafood fail to protect bodies of water from pollution or to minimize excessive consumption of water resources if land-based. The EU regulations also state that “chemically synthesized allopathic veterinary medicinal products including antibiotics may be used where necessary…” The EU also allows immunological veterinary medicines.

These very loose policies do not match NOP rules for U.S. organic livestock and do not meet U.S. organic consumer expectations.

Norway’s organic aquaculture industry produces 64 percent of all farm-raised salmon globally. The industry is of particular concern to advocates because of loose standards. The Green Warriors of Norway, an environmental organization that opposes issuing organic certification to aquaculture producers, calls production of “organic” farm-raised salmon “environment-damaging organic salmon fraud.”

Green Warriors say companies that produce “organic” farm-raised salmon use similar practices to those of conventional salmon farms. Norway’s “organic” fish can be densely stocked in net pens and can be treated with up to three courses of antibiotics in one year, but this limit assumes effective monitoring protocols. ProJourno reports monitoring has been minimal. Green Warriors believe “organic” salmon receive the same antibiotics as conventional salmon and endanger wild fish stocks.

The Norwegian Food Safety Authority expressed concern in a May 2014 report that fish breeders have been unable to keep lice levels within the allowed limits. It noted that such infections affect all types of aquaculture, wild and “organic” farmed salmon.

PCC Natural Markets believes farmed fish produced this way should not be permitted to be labeled “organic” in U.S. markets. American consumers and retailers deserve better.

We recommend that NOSB support a resolution and guidance to inform retailers, including Wegmans and FreshDirect, that they may not sell “organic” seafood until USDA establishes its own organic aquaculture standards that meet U.S. retailer and consumer expectations.

**

PCC Natural Markets thanks the Board for your service and for considering our comments.

We appreciate the good work you do to maintain integrity and transparency in the organic industry.

Sincerely,

Trudy Bialic and Eli Penberthy
Public Affairs

Related Reading

Funding for the Soil Health Initiative

PCC submitted a letter to the Washington State legislators to request that the Soil Health Initiative, passed in 2020, receive its full funding allocation during the 2021-2023 biennial operating budget.

Proposed improvements to the Farm Bill

Letter to U.S. Senators re: competition, COOL, commodity payments, farm worker justice, and organic agriculture.

The organic Sunset Provision and organic aquaculture

Regarding the sunset process and aquaculture