Summary of issues before the NOSB

There are four topics warranting comment to the NOSB at its April 2011 meeting in Seattle:

  1. Synthetic additives (e.g. DHA/ARA)
  2. Aquaculture
  3. Nanotechnology
  4. Poultry standards

1. Synthetic additives

Two additives currently being added to organic products warrant consumer comment immediately. They are Martek Biosciences Corporation’s omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (DHA/ARA) derived chemically from fermented algae and fungus.

Federal law states that synthetic additives must be approved by the USDA National Organic Program through a formal petition process, assuring their safety and acceptability before they legally may be added to foods bearing the organic label.

Martek did not petition NOSB for approval until August 2010, at least four years after it was being added to organic products. Martek’s DHA/ARA never has been reviewed or approved by NOSB.

The additives currently are in Earth’s Best infant formula, Spectrum’s Organic Flax oil and numerous supplements, such as Udo’s Choice DHA Oil and Yummy Bear Brain Booster vitamins. (There is no restriction against use in non-organic foods or supplements.)

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s resource, MedWatch, there are more than 100 complaints of adverse reactions filed with the FDA. The complaints suggest a causal relationship between the additives and gastrointestinal problems, such as reflux, vomiting and diarrhea, in infants and young children.

USDA officials reportedly became aware in 2006 that infant formula manufacturers were adding these unapproved additives to products with the organic seal. A Freedom of Information Act request reveals that the Bush administration’s NOP director approved them without due process and over the objections of other USDA staff.

A complaint filed in April 2008 by the Cornucopia Institute, an organic policy group, asked USDA to remove all organic products with the ingredients from store shelves and prohibit companies from using the ingredients in products labeled as organic. Cornucopia argues that DHA and ARA should not be allowed in organics because — in addition to not being reviewed or approved — they’re extracted from algae and fungus using a toxic solvent called hexane. Organic regulations ban the use of hexane in processing organic foods and ingredients.

Some believe that USDA has dragged its feet on forcing removal of these unapproved additives to allow infant formula manufacturers and the nation’s largest milk processor to petition NOSB and get them approved, after the fact. (Dean Foods adds Martek’s DHA to Horizon organic milk.)

According to investigations by Cornucopia, no meta-analysis studies (review data from all clinical trials conducted) have been published showing any benefits to infants from DHA/ARA supplementation. One long-term study has been published suggesting possible detrimental effects, particularly higher blood pressure in girls who were given formula with DHA/ARA. The European Union recently has rejected a health claim on infant formula claiming that DHA aids brain development, based on a lack of evidence.

On March 14, 2011, the NOSB released a controversial committee proposal to allow any synthetic nutrient additive that comes to market to be added to organic foods, without review. The committee vote was split. The NOSB as a whole will make the final decision.

Should any synthetic nutrient additives be allowed in organic products without review?

PCC’s view is that all synthetic additives must be reviewed individually as the law clearly requires. Our assessment is that organic consumers absolutely expect all synthetic additives to go through the formal petition and review process.

Manufacturers who are using it should not get an automatic pass. We request immediate enforcement action against companies currently adding unapproved synthetic nutrient additives, such as DHA and ARA.

Current standards do not allow unapproved nutrient additives. It is entirely reasonable to request enforcement action based on the current standards.

For more information and a summary of the literature questioning the efficacy and safety of these additives, see the Cornucopia Institute’s March 21 news release.

2. Aquaculture

Should all fish, or just vegetarian fish, be eligible for organic certification?

See the April 2011 Sound Consumer for a thorough report and guidance.

3. Nanotechnology

Similar to the situation with synthetic additives, some organic products already contain nano-particles even though these novel ingredients have not been approved by the NOSB or NOP through the formal petition and review process.

Nanoparticles are nothing new. They’ve been around for millions of years. A nanoparticle is anything that measures 100 nm (nanometer) or less. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is 80,000 nm wide. Hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells, measures 5 nm.

Nanoparticles are present in the body as proteins and in nature – for instance, the ash of a forest fire. Particles found in nature are different sizes. Not every piece of ash is a nanoparticle; some are smaller and some bigger.

Nanotechnology, however, began in the early 1980s. In nanotechnology, particle sizes created are typically of uniform size. These are not naturally found in nature and are potentially hazardous.

For instance, two ingredients often used in “natural” sunscreens are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They’re used in nanoparticle form to make them more aesthetically pleasing; the technology changes the color from white to clear. Both Aubrey Organics and Badger Balm, for instance, say their sunscreens contain some nanoparticles but they say they don’t use nanotechnology in processing these ingredients.

If there’s any hole at all in the Natural Products Association (NPA) Natural Standard (which PCC adheres to as our standard for supplements and body care products), it’s that it does not require a company to reveal the presence of nanoparticles. Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific affairs at NPA, asserts that nanoparticles are completely safe and not absorbed.

Other researchers question that view. In December 2006, the city of Berkeley, Calif. amended its hazardous materials law to include nanoparticles.

The director of the Material Science Divison at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Paul Alivisatos, says, “We know that nano-scale particles can enter inside cells and we know that could have consequences for health, so it is incumbent that we do research to understand what is the nature of the interaction between new engineered artificial nanoparticles and living systems, not just cells but whole living people.”

A naturopath from Bastyr who researched and wrote a brief summary of this topic says overwhelming evidence that these particles are safe simply does not exist.

Research published in a 2009 issue of the “Journal of Health Sciences” found titanium dioxide nanoparticles injected just under the skin of pregnant mice caused damage in their offspring to genital and cranial nerve systems. An article published in the “Journal of Applied Toxicology” in 1998 suggests that titanium dioxide nanoparticles cause lung damage in rats.

In September 2008, the European Commission began asking companies to submit safety data “with regard to all substances used at nano-scale and the final [cosmetic] products in which they are used” to allow for a complete risk assessment.

In the United States, there’s no way to track or identify nanoparticles or any potential health problems related to them. There is no labeling requirement.

Consumers Union and the National Organic Coalition advocate that nanotechnology be declared a prohibited method of production. PCC agrees.

4. Poultry standards/animal welfare

NOSB Livestock Committee recommendations for diet, stocking density, and handling/transport/slaughter are being voted on Friday morning.

The NOP is assessing the recommendations to consider whether future rulemaking (setting more detailed rules, rather than just providing “guidance”) is warranted.

In general, the recommendations will help prevent future abuses in the organic poultry business. They address some loopholes that several of the largest producers have taken advantage of:

  • Birds may not be confined indoors due to a “threat” of disease. This is a good provision, since some large organic producers have confined organic hens perpetually, while others in the same area have not. Confinement also exacerbates the spread of disease while outdoor runs with direct sunshine, fresh air, and diverse vegetation are health-enhancing.
  • Outdoor access and door spacing in barns must “promote and encourage” outside access for all birds on a daily basis. We like this recommendation, too, since chicks that don’t go outside tend not to go outside as adults unless they’re “encouraged.” Promoting and encouraging birds to go outside – with plentiful popholes instead of just one door at one end of the barn for thousands of hens – is essential to meet the intent of the outdoor access standard. Otherwise, outdoor runs are relatively empty while the indoor henhouse is packed, even on warm sunny days.
  • Pasture-based systems are required to have access to “a variety of vegetation.” But non-pastured systems are not specifically required to include a variety of vegetation. They should be. Some for shade, some for hiding, some providing habitat for insects and forage, etc. We feel this recommendation should be strengthened to require that all outdoor runs have a “variety of vegetation.”
  • Producers must provide “appropriate, clean, dry bedding” and the shelter must be designed to allow for (among other things) “ventilation, and air circulation suitable to the species.”

Henhouse and outdoor run designs vary and the methods used to remove sodden litter vary. Our experience indicates that prescriptive language is required to ensure “clean, dry bedding.”

Ammonia standard

One organic henhouse that we visited, for instance, has elevated flooring so litter, below, can be mucked out at will, frequently. Ammonia levels were hardly noticeable inside this barn, even with 4,500 birds in it.

Another local operation with broiler pullets, however, had ground level flooring and is not mucked out or changed for months at a time. The amount of accumulated litter created ammonia levels high enough to cause human respiratory discomfort.

On grounds of animal welfare, a 20 ppm level is consistent with scientific evidence. It is the level at which hens begin to experience distress. Follow this link to read pages 127 to 135, about how chickens are averse to ammonia starting at 20 ppm and higher, indicating that various physiological systems and processes are adversely affected.

Currently, organic standards do not require monitoring ammonia levels in poultry operations. PCC believes this is an oversight.

Stocking densities

PCC will advocate in its April remarks that NOSB recommend a standard for ammonia levels in poultry houses. We advocate a maximum tolerable ammonia level, not to exceed 20 ppm.

Organic standards should specify that steps must be taken to prevent ammonia build-up to levels that exceed 20 ppm. This can be done by reducing the stocking density — the number of birds in a given area — and improving ventilation.

At the last NOSB meeting in Madison, representatives of large, dense operations opposed prescriptive language for stocking densities, requesting broad, non-specific language allowing individual interpretations. Smaller producers supported prescriptive language, since the lack of it has led to gross disparities behind the “organic” label.

View the Livestock Committee’s proposed recommendations for organic livestock, including poultry, in chart-form. The committee’s proposed recommendations for poultry density are:

Laying hens and breeders:
1.5 square feet per bird indoors
2.0 square feet per bird outdoors

Broilers:
1.0 square foot per bird indoors
1.0 square foot per bird outdoors

PCC’s assessment is that these recommendations are inadequate.

The 1.5 square-foot indoor allowance is not adequate since a chicken's wingspan is approximately 2.5 feet. This means a chicken requires at least 2.5 square feet just to stretch its wings, a “natural behavior” that organic standards are meant to ensure.

A broiler hen would have less than half this space outdoors. If all chickens wanted to be outside at the same time, they would be packed so tightly that running around, scratching in dirt, and other natural behaviors would be impossible. It also makes no sense to us that broilers should have less space than laying hens.

We join other advocates in asking, for both layers and broilers:
2.0 square feet per bird indoors
5.0 square feet per bird outdoors

The 5 square-foot outdoor allowance is based on Organic Valley’s standard for its egg-laying operations. All Organic Valley producers have been expected to meet this 5 sqft recommendation, so it’s entirely reasonable.

We support the view that producers should be allowed a three-year grace period to comply, since many will need to convert additional land around their henhouses to organic status, and that takes three years.

Return to the April 2011 NOSB meeting page »

Related Content