Use of sodium lactate in organic products

December 7, 2009

Ms. Valerie Frances, Executive Director
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Room 4008–So., Ag Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250–0268

Dear Ms. Frances and NOSB members,

While collecting information to submit our company’s remarks during a public comment period on the USDA’s definition of “natural,” I realized a peculiar situation regarding use of sodium lactate.

Sodium lactate is not routinely allowed for use in products labeled “natural” but it has been approved for use in certified organic products.

According to the Federal Register (Vol. 74, No. 176, Monday, September 14, 2009), the Food Safety and Inspection Service modified in 2005 its longstanding 1982 Policy Memo 055, to acknowledge ”[s]ugar, sodium lactate (from a corn source) [at certain levels] and natural flavorings from oleoresins or extractives are acceptable for ‘all natural’ claims.” By late 2006, however, FSIS received information that raised questions about its 2005 judgment that sodium lactate – at levels approved for flavoring – was consistent with the meaning of “natural.”

The Federal Register says the information indicated that sodium lactate (as well as potassium lactate and calcium lactate) may provide an antimicrobial effect at levels approved for flavoring. To its great credit, Hormel Foods 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 1) it does not contain artificial flavorings, artificial coloring, other artificial or synthetic ingredients, or chemical preservatives; and 2) it is not more than minimally processed. According to the Federal Register, Hormel’s petition further stated that issues of consumer confidence and consistency in labeling dictate that exceptions for specific chemical preservatives and synthetic ingredients should not be allowed. The petition focused on the 2005 Policy Book entry’s references to use of sodium lactate (from a corn source).

FSIS concluded in 2006 that listing sodium lactate (from a corn source) for “natural” meat and poultry products “may have been in error.” The current FSIS policy book has removed the 2005 reference to sodium lactate. It now provides that use of sodium lactate (or any ingredient known to have multiple technical effects in products labeled as “natural”) will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the intended use, level of use, and technical function are consistent with the original 1982 policy.

… Which brings us to the use of sodium lactate in USDA certified organic standards.

Since sodium lactate is not acknowledged by the FSIS for use in meat products labeled “natural” (except potentially on a case-by-case basis at the time of label approval), it seems logical that sodium lactate should not be acknowledged for use in certified organic products. Consumers expect organic standards to be more rigorous than standards for “natural” and it seems incongruous that organic would allow something that “natural” would not allow automatically.

I revisited the NOSB and NOP activities to reconstruct events leading to approval of sodium lactate, beginning with the August 17, 2005 formal recommendation by the NOSB to the NOP. It said, “[M]embers of the NOSB have argued that the combination of generic substances on the [National] list that result [in] another synthetic reaction would require an additional review of the new substance (i.e. sodium lactate). Such a substance is prohibited unless it was added to the National List. To suggest otherwise goes against the intent of the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) and established industry norms.”

I also queried the NOSB and received a FAX of a January 22, 2004 letter, signed by an NOP staffer and addressed to Applegate Farms. The NOP letter acknowledged Applegate’s petition requesting that sodium lactate and potassium lactate be added to the National List.

The NOP’s stated reply was that sodium lactate and potassium lactate are formulated products derived from substances presently included on the National List, and therefore do not have to be included on the National List to be used in organic handling. However, this interpretation is contrary not only to the petitioner’s view but also opposite to the NOSB’s recommendations.

The transcript of the NOSB meeting refers to the definition in OFPA that synthetic is a substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process, or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from a naturally-occurring plant, animal, or mineral source. As one NOSB member noted, “We agreed that if I’m going to add something else to the ingredient that I’ve extracted, it’s got to be on the National List… It doesn’t make it synthetic… It just means that the synthetic substance that has been added to it has to be on the National List.” The NOSB voted 12 yes, zero no (with one absent and one recusal).

Given this, I ask respectfully that the NOSB revisit whether sodium lactate should be on the National List, or not. Also, since some sodium lactate is being made from sugar beet, and since sugar beets now are genetically engineered (GE), we ask NOSB to ensure that any sugar beet (or corn) used to manufacture sodium lactate is organic.

In our view, as a consumer-owned grocer, we agree with Hormel that use of sodium lactate should not be allowed in meat and poultry labeled “natural.” We are pleased and respect FSIS’s conclusion that listing sodium lactate (from a corn source) for “natural” meat and poultry products “may have been in error,” upholding the original 1982 position.

We therefore ask the NOSB and NOP to revisit the propriety of sodium lactate in organic products, given the stronger restrictions against its use in products labeled “natural.”

Respectfully yours,

Trudy Bialic
Director, Public Affairs

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