Comments to NOSB on petitions and motions

October 4, 2018

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

Docket # AMS-NOP-18-0029-0001

 

Dear NOSB Members,

PCC Community Markets is the largest consumer-owned retail grocer in the United States. We have 59,000 active members that own and operate our 11 stores in six cities of western Washington, generating more than $275 million in annual revenue.

Our commitment to organic agriculture is built into our overarching Ends Policies that declare our purpose is to create an environment where the organic supply chain can thrive. We are certified as an organic handler for our produce, meat and seafood, bulk grocery, deli cheese, and espresso departments. I am on the board of the Non-GMO Project and PCC is a member of the National Organic Coalition.

We have comments on the following topics, by committee:

    1. CROPS COMMITTEE
    2. HANDLING COMMITTEE
    3. COMPLIANCE, ACCREDITATION, AND CERTIFICATION SUBCOMMITTEE

 

1. Crops Committee

Plastic mulch

Position: Support relisting but urge seeking alternatives as a research priority.

Of all the topics we hear about from our shoppers, concerns about plastic and its environmental impacts rank #2 (second only to concerns about sugar). Shoppers email and call almost every day, pleading with us to eliminate plastic packaging, plastic bags, and virtually everything else plastic. Organic shoppers would be very disappointed to learn how much non-compostable, fossil fuel-based plastic is used in organic food production.

We understand the National Organic Program says mulch must be 100 percent non-fossil fuel-based to avoid being listed as a prohibited material. We know plastic mulches today can’t meet that standard, containing as little as 10 percent biodegradable material. We are aware some claims of “biodegradable plastic” are not honest since the material simply breaks apart into tiny bits that disperse into the environment; they do not truly biodegrade or break down.

We also understand the absolute importance of this material for organic farmers – especially smaller-scale farmers. Organic certifiers have told us they do not know how small farmers would remain viable without plastic mulch, and for more than just weed suppression.

To support emerging and family-scale organic farmers, we can support relisting plastic mulch.

But we urge the NOSB to recommend continued research for alternatives that are 100 percent biobased and biodegradable as a research priority.

Liquid fish products

Position: Support relisting with annotation to require 1) material is certified as harvested sustainably from a clean environment and 2) only fish waste may be used.

Living on the shores of the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean, PCC consumers are acutely aware of what is happening to our marine environment in the name of food production. Overfishing, illegal fishing, and harvest methods that damage our marine environment are threatening the viability of multiple species. Traceability in marine supply chains is challenging.

For these reasons, we urge NOSB to relist only liquid fish products that are certified to be harvested sustainably by reputable independent organizations with independent scientists not reliant on funding from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association or other interests that support unsustainable models and practices for economic advantage to industry.

We urge NOSB to require certified traceability to ensure only fish waste is used for liquid fish materials. Certification of sourcing would ease concerns about exacerbating harvest pressures.

 

2. Handling Committee

Flavors

§205.605(a)

Position:We oppose relisting “flavors” as a category. NOSB should push industry to show progress in developing and adopting organic flavors according to the original 1995 NOSB plan and set a deadline to Sunset non-organic “flavors.”

Under U.S. law, biotechnological-generated compounds are classified legally as “natural” flavors (de Carvalho et al., 2000). This legal “natural” designation creates murky territory, at best, for ensuring the source of flavors.

Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows manufacturers to conceal their production of flavors as Confidential Business Information (CBI). FDA does not require flavor companies to disclose ingredients if all the chemicals are GRAS. Companies can maintain secrecy of their formulas and hide that “flavors” are produced in ways or with substances they do not wish to disclose.

The combination of these two factors — 1) that GE-produced flavors can be called “natural” legally, and 2) the lack of transparency into ingredients — means certifiers cannot ensure a flavor’s source, or how it is made.

“Natural” and “artificial” flavors are not as different as labels suggest. The distinction is based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually contains. Natural and artificial flavors sometimes contain the same chemicals, produced through different processes.

Biotech flavorings are produced with bacteria, fungi and yeasts using enzymatic processes. For example, “Natural cheese flavor” can be made using bacteria that converts glucose into butyric acid, a component naturally present in butter and some cheeses.

The biotech company Senomyx invented four flavorings approved as GRAS by FDA, including S336, a biotech substitute for MSG. Legally, S336 is labeled “natural flavor.”

Organic consumers do not want mysterious “flavors” in organic food. They expect organic foods are sufficiently appetizing to not require added flavors. Consumers are averse to a lack of transparency in how flavors are made. The lack of transparency contradicts the principle of organic traceability and transparency.

It is important for NOP and certifiers to explain to consumers how they determine that flavors in organic products actually meet the requirements of the annotation.

Based on the concerns and questions we’ve seen from organic consumers about unknown “flavors” on ingredient panels, we believe organic shoppers want only certified organic flavors to be allowed in organic food.

When flavors were approved for addition to the National List in 1995, the NOSB laid out a plan:

First, to list for use in organic foods flavors meeting these conditions (others for “made with organic”):

      • All flavor constituents used in the natural flavor are from natural sources and have not been chemically modified in a way that makes them different from their natural chemical state.
      • The natural flavor has not been produced using any synthetic solvent and carrier systems or any artificial preservatives.

Second, manufacturers should document in their Organic Handling Plans progress towards wholly organic natural flavors:

      1. Natural flavor constituents and non-synthetic carrier base and preservative agents (e.g., grain ethanol, non-synthetic glycerin, and non-synthetic acetic acid).
      2. Organic flavor constituents, organic carrier base, and organic preservative agents.
      3. Organic flavor constituents extracted using organically produced solvents, organic carrier base, and organic preservative agents.

The rule was published with the current listing, applying to both organic and made with organic foods on §205.605(a): “Flavors, nonsynthetic sources only and must not be produced using synthetic solvents and carrier systems or any artificial preservative.”

The current proposed rule, based on the NOSB recommendation that is slightly stronger than OTA’s petition, calls for the listing, “Non-synthetic flavors may be used when organic flavors are not commercially available. All flavors must be derived from organic or nonsynthetic sources only and must not be produced using synthetic solvents and carrier systems or any artificial preservative.”

This is a small step along the path laid out in the original recommendation, according to which, producers of flavors used in organic foods should have – and presumably should have been acting on—a plan to move towards all-organic flavors. Given the elapsed time, we must agree with concerns voiced by the Handling Subcommittee (HS) that the proposal does not go far enough.

To address these concerns, the HS said,

“It is the subcommittee’s opinion that this is just a first step and that future NOSB’s should continue to push industry in the development and adoption of organic flavors along the lines original envisioned in 1995:

Current – Natural flavor constituents and non-synthetic carrier base and preservative agents

Proposed, when commercially available: Organic flavor constituents, organic carrier base, and organic preservative agents

Future: Organic flavor constituents, organic carrier base, and organic preservative agents and then organic flavor constituents extracted using organically produced solvent, organic carrier base, and organic preservative agents.”

It has taken 20 years to move from step one to step two in this progression.

To ensure the final step will occur in the near future, we suggest NOSB add a deadline for moving to the final step.

Establishing a deadline for realizing the 1995 plan could be accomplished by adding an expiration date (which would be the same as the next Sunset date) to the proposed listing, as in:

“Until xxxx, non-synthetic flavors may be used when organic flavors are not commercially available. All flavors must be derived from organic or nonsynthetic sources only and must not be produced using synthetic solvents and carrier systems or any artificial preservative.”

Xanthan gum

§205.605(b)

Position:We urge NOSB to sunset xanthan gum. Any plain reading of the regulation §205.600 (b) (4) would prohibit synthetic additives used primarily to recreate or improve texture, such as xanthan gum.

§205.600 (b) (4) “Evaluation criteria for allowed and prohibited substances, methods, and ingredients” states clearly that synthetic additives whose primary purpose is to recreate or improve texture should be prohibited.

§205.600 (b) (4) says:

“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”

We therefore believe that including xanthan gum on the National List is improper and illegal since its primary use and purpose is to recreate or improve texture.

We wish to emphasize that organic shoppers object to xanthan gum for a variety of reasons. For example:

“Xanthan gum seems to be popping up on ingredient lists every which way. As the parent of a wheat- and egg-allergic child, I understand its appeal, but it’s made from corn — and not organic corn, mind you. I find it personally frustrating as well, as I am allergic to corn.”
— Sarah B.

“[Like] carrageenan, xanthan gum also is problematic. Xanthan gum can be an effective laxative … I carefully read ingredient lists now and sometimes cannot find products I want to use that do not contain it. I am disappointed.
— Abigail L.

Unlike other “gum” additives that are derived from plants, such as guar gum and locust bean gum, xanthan gum is produced artificially in a vat by fermenting a sugar (commonly corn, and usually GE corn) with bacteria.

We have heard from customers, as above, who identify fermented gums, such as xanthan gum, in causing digestive upset. Consumers are concerned that xanthan gum is derived typically from corn, or perhaps soy or wheat — all common allergens. The consumer’s inability to know what a particular gellan gum is derived from narrows the market demand for organic choices, especially among populations allergic to corn, soy or wheat. This material, in effect, has constricted market growth.

We urge NOSB to sunset xanthan gum to conform to §205.600 (b) (4), which prohibits synthetic materials used primarily to recreate or improve the texture of organic foods.

Gellan gum

§205.605(a) Gellan gum (CAS # 71010-52-1) – high acyl form only.

Position:We urge NOSB to sunset Gellan gum and set a certain date for delisting.

Like xanthan gum, gellan gum also is not derived from plants but is produced in a vat from bacterial fermentation of a sugar-containing medium, which often is corn, soy, dairy or wheat. It has not received GRAS status from FDA.

Processed-food makers legally can say on their labels that a product with gellan gum is “all natural.” But that is misleading, since gellan gum is not found in nature.

Gellan gum is largely indigestible and studies indicate it may cause abdominal bloating, excessive gas, and diarrhea. Consumers allergic or sensitive to the growth mediums corn, soy, wheat and dairy can suffer more severe reactions.

A staff nutritionist advised that some consumers reported reactions to gellan gum similar to reactions from other gums produced with bacterial fermentation, such as xanthan gum. There is insufficient research on fermented gums to refute or confirm this.

One study found that rats eating a diet with 5 percent gellan gum for four weeks resulted in intestinal microvilli adhering to one another and decreased digestion of nutrients in the gut. [“Effects of Curdlan and gellan Gum on the Surface Structure of Intestinal Mucosa in Rats,” Osaka City Univ. and Osaka Prefecture Univ., 2009, jstage.jst.go.jp) It seems like a bad idea to eat something sticky that cannot be digested, has no nutritional value, may impair the ability of microvilli, and may decrease digestion of nutrients.

We urge NOSB to sunset gellan gum as an ingredient that organic consumers do not want and is reported to cause reactions in some consumers. We ask NOSB to add to its work agenda consideration of a policy to address concerns about gums produced through bacterial fermentation.

Gellan gum’s sunset date, at the very least, should be replaced with an expiration date, so it may not be relisted unless petitioned anew. This would allow new information — in particular, information claimed by the original petitioner to be Confidential Business Information — to be considered in a meaningful way.

Gums: Arabic, carob bean, guar, locust bean

§205.606(k) Gums – water extracted only (Arabic; Guar; Locust bean; and Carob bean)

Position: We do not oppose relisting these gums, but we ask for an annotation that would separate them to evaluate commercial availability for each, and to require organic choices whenever available.

Consumers do not object to natural gums and we have not heard anecdotal reports of any adverse reactions to these non-fermented gums.

Locust bean gum and carob bean gum, however, are derived from carob — and organic carob is commercially available.

We urge the Handling Subcommittee to consider, through annotation, each gum’s commercial availability separately.

We also ask that NOSB require the use of organic gums whenever available.

Magnesium stearate

§205.605(b)

Position: We do not oppose relisting this synthetic — as long as additional restrictions are added to the existing annotation to prohibit animal sources and to allow it only in “made with organic (ingredient(s))” dietary supplement tablets and capsules.

We support the subcommittee recommendation to prohibit magnesium stearate in agricultural products labeled “organic.”

We support the subcommittee recommendation to allow relisting magnesium stearate for use as a binding agent only for dietary supplement tablets and capsules made with organic ingredients, under agricultural products labeled “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s)).”

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there has been “some level of concern” about magnesium stearate in food. EWG cited a peer-reviewed publication [D. Søndergaard, O. Meyer & G. Würtzen. 1980. “Magnesium stearate given perorally to rats. A short term study.” Toxicology 17(1), 51-5] that reported this substance decreases liver weight in rodents at high doses. That is an old study, but more recent reports indicate continuing questions.

In 2016, the 80th FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) — the international scientific committee administered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization — noted concern that dietary exposure resulting from use of magnesium stearate and other magnesium salts in many food additives may result in combined exposure with a laxative effect. Infants were noted to be particularly sensitive to the sedative effects of magnesium salts. Individuals with chronic renal impairment retained 15-30 percent of administered magnesium, which could cause toxicity.

In 2017, a study published by the National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine [Hobbs, Saigo, Koyanagi, Hayashi, Toxicology Reports 2017 Oct 16; Volume 4 pp. 554-559] stated that although magnesium stearate is “considered to have a safe toxicity profile, there is no available information regarding its potential to induce genetic toxicity,” and “health effects of cumulative exposure to magnesium via multiple sources present in food additives may be of concern and warrant further evaluation.”

Stearic acid from animal sources should be prohibited in organic and “made with organic (ingredient(s))” products. Stearic acid may be derived from the fat of cows, sheep, pigs and dogs and cats euthanized in animal shelters, according to PETA. Such rendered fats are not acceptable to organic consumers, even in dietary supplements.

For these reasons, we urge NOSB to add annotation to allow magnesium stearate

      • only when the stearic acid is from vegetable sources
      • that magnesium stearate be allowed only in dietary supplement tablets and capsules labeled “made with organic (ingredients or food groups)” — but not in organic food or certified organic dietary supplements.

Sulfur dioxide

Position:We support the current annotation that limits the use of sulfur dioxide as an additive to wine only labeled “made with organic grapes.” We urge NOSB to reduce the limit for sulfite concentration in wines “made with organic grapes” to not exceed 50 ppm.

The prohibition against adding sulfur to organic wine is clear and easy for consumers to understand. Allowing added sulfur to certified organic wine would blur the distinction of organics in the marketplace.

Consumers generally accept naturally occurring sulfites, allowed in organic wine up to 20 ppm. Many quality organic wines, for instance, contain about 7 ppm.

Responsible non-organic winemakers generally limit added sulfur to levels from 20 to 50 ppm, far below the 100-ppm threshold. PCC’s own wine expert says the 100-ppm figure is hugely excessive.

Current practices by responsible non-organic winemakers to limit added sulfur to no more than 50 ppm demonstrates the feasibility of a 50 ppm threshold.

Experienced winetasters say too much sulfur absolutely is detectable in wine, often as a smoky or edgy smell or taste, and that sound wine-making practices make it completely unnecessary. We therefore have reason to believe that allowing total sulfites up to 100 ppm is well beyond what any responsible, quality winemaker would allow.

Organic consumers do not want any added sulfur in certified organic wines and we reject the notion that up to 100 ppm of total sulfites is either reasonable or acceptable.

We therefore urge NOSB to add to the annotation for wines “made with organic grapes” to reduce the amount of allowable added sulfur to 50 ppm, in accordance with the demonstrated practice by responsible non-organic winemakers.

Lecithin: de-oiled

§205.606(o) Lecithin – de-oiled

Position:We do not support relisting de-oiled lecithin.

Use of lecithin and commercial availability of non-organic de-oiled (dry) lecithin has been debated for years. Relisting this material does not appear to have pushed the market to expand availability. Instead, allowing a non-organic option apparently has chilled demand for organic dry lecithin and held back production.

According to comments by an organic de-oiled lecithin supplier in the Organic Trade Association’s letter of comment to NOSB, April 4, 2018, certified organic de-oiled soy lecithin was available for more than two years by 2017. This means certified organic de-oiled soy lecithin now has been available commercially for more than three years.

The supplier at that time already was shipping its product to organic customers in at least four states and three countries overseas. This supplier said it had two facilities that can produce de-oiled lecithin and, since de-oiled lecithin use in the world is less than 5 percent, “these two facilities alone can easily produce enough supply for the demand.” It said, “there are only a few applications a de-oiled lecithin would be necessary, primarily in baking … [and] primarily as a convenience – using a dry product vs. a viscous liquid … being easier to handle.”

We believe that if the allowance for non-organic de-oiled lecithin is removed, more companies would produce this ingredient. We believe the allowance for non-organic de-oiled lecithin has hindered, rather than spurred, organic lecithin production.

We believe that if de-oiled lecithin is removed through Sunset, there would be economic gain for organic companies supplying this material to the U.S. organic market.

We do not support relisting de-oiled lecithin.

Packaging substances used in organic food handling, including BPA

Position:We ask that NOSB seek input from the food industry about their packaging materials.

PCC Community Markets very much appreciates NOSB’s review and discussion of concerns about bisphenols in food packaging in the same way other synthetic materials in contact with organic food are evaluated. We are glad the Handling Subcommittee agrees organic food should be produced and sold to consumers in a manner than minimizes exposure to toxic materials in any form. It is inconsistent to prohibit contact between organic and non-organic produce and yet allow contact between organic foods and toxic materials in the packaging they’re sold.

On behalf of many shoppers who have expressed great concern about BPA and other Chemicals of High Concern in packaging, we have queried processed food manufacturers about their packaging materials but all but a few did not reply.

We are aware that leading organic companies, such as Eden Foods, actively avoid BPA in their packaging and we would like to hear more from them.

We would value NOSB’s leadership in gathering information necessary to recommend available safer, alternative materials. We urge NOSB to work with innovative scientists and packaging experts, such as Clean Production Action, of Boston.

 

3. Compliance, Accreditation, and Certification Subcommittee

Contamination issues of farm inputs (consistency in enforcement)

Since 2015, PCC Community Markets has submitted comments asking the NOSB to address how organic farmers and organic foods are impacted by on-site or nearby energy infrastructure, specifically oil and gas drilling, including hydraulic fracking.

PCC Community Markets has had to field shoppers’ concerns about the impacts of heavy drilling, especially hydraulic fracking, on farmers and organic foods. They are concerned about the contamination issues created by energy industry infrastructure on farmland with rights of way or other land use agreements.

We know an increasing number of farmers are raising concerns about acreage destroyed by oil and gas companies laying pipelines in rights of way. They say bulldozers scrape off the topsoil and push it aside, but once pipes are laid, companies don’t restore the land as promised. Uneven land with compacted clay has rendered many acres unfit for growing crops. We know this is causing some organic farmers to lose organic certification.

We know farm animals near drilling sites are falling ill, too many have died. We know the Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged fracking can and is contaminating water sources in some places. We know data from the Centers for Disease Control shows fracking is associated an increased risk of infant mortality in areas where fracking occurs. We know the University of Chicago has found infants born to women living near fracking sites are especially vulnerable with lower birth weights, higher rates of mortality and asthma, and lower test scores in school.

We believe investigation and follow-up is necessary and we feel the NOSB and NOP should act to preserve consumer confidence in organic certification.

We urge the NOSB to add the topic of Organic Agriculture Impact Mitigation Plans to the work plan.

We ask that you invite specialists to your deliberations and develop a discussion document to help inform retailers and other stakeholders.

We ask that you develop guidance or instructions for certifiers for farmers to demonstrate support in navigating the issues so more organic farmers don’t lose certification, and so consumers can feel assured the NOP has the farmers’ interests at heart and will protect the integrity of the foods they produce.

 

Submitted respectively,

Trudy Bialic
Director, Public Affairs & Quality Standards
PCC Community Markets

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