This is the first of a two-part series that was inspired by the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) meeting in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago.
Compared to conventional food, most people view organic food as safer and more natural (no GMOs), healthier, and better for farmworkers and the environment. In essence, organic is a superior choice to conventional food and is the closest thing to what nature intends.
Yet, based on what took place in Pittsburgh at the most recent NOSB meeting, some industry stakeholders are questioning whether policy decision-makers are doing everything they can to uphold this moniker of organic as a “superior” food.
At issue was conventional celery powder, a seemingly innocuous ingredient which the NOSB voted to have remain in organic for another five years.
Since organic celery powder that meets both flavor profile and nitrate concentration requirements does not exist, the industry utilizes conventional celery powder to cure organic hot dogs and other organic processed meats. This conventional celery uses synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to be to able to meet its nitrate requirements.
As part of the process, a bacterial culture is mixed into celery juice, which produces nitrites. When the nitrites in celery powder are heated at a high temperature or interact with proteins, these nitrites convert into nitrosamines, which are widely considered to be carcinogenic. Furthermore, the World Health Organization considers processed meat to be a carcinogen due to evidence that its consumption causes colorectal cancer.
Herein lies the basis of the controversy at the NOSB meeting in Pittsburgh and the role of this ingredient in organic. Not surprisingly, there was disagreement.
“The NOSB made the right decision to relist celery powder, a minor ingredient but a fundamental material that food companies need in order to offer an array of organic meat options,” said a spokesperson for CROPP Cooperative, which produces organic meat products under the Organic Prairie label.
“Eating meat is a consumer choice, and eating processed food is a consumer choice. We trust families to make those choices with the right degree of care and thought. But banning celery powder just eliminates a large selection of organic meat products, and the most likely outcome would be consumers substituting the loss with conventional meat. What we’d see is organic farmers losing sales opportunities, a steep decline in the number of animals raised in organic systems, and less land in the U.S. farmed organically. That action seems to endorse a path to fewer farmers, more industrial-scale livestock, and more pesticides and chemicals on the land.”
On the other side of this argument are several consumer advocacy groups, such as the Organic Consumers Association, Beyond Pesticides and OrganicEye, all of whom wanted conventional celery powder banned in organic.
“When the NOSB considers an ingredient, it has to take into account four questions — is it safe for the environment, is it safe for human health, is it essential and is it compatible with the organic philosophy?” said Mark Kastel, founder of OrganicEye, a consumer watchdog organization.
“The board is violating the letter of the law because it must factor in human health impacts. Unfortunately, marketing considerations are driving these decisions, and it is emblematic of what is wrong with the NOSB.”
What this celery powder issue points to, among other things, is that our collective definition of organic food — and the role of organic in society — is not as clear, settled and pure as we would like to believe.
One side note.
Even though organic processed meats contain the labels “uncured” and “no added nitrates or nitrites,” this is misleading, according to Consumer Reports. The organization believes that the use of celery powder, instead of synthetic curing agents such as sodium nitrite, poses the same health risks as traditionally cured meats because the nitrate and nitrite levels are essentially the same.
Max Goldberg, Founder
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