Today, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is meeting in Saint Louis. As I write this, carrageenan is still an acceptable ingredient in organic foods. But by the time you read this, that may have changed. There’s a good chance that by the time NOSB has wrapped up their business, they will have removed carrageenan from the National List of synthetic ingredients permitted to be used in food marketed as organic. There’s nothing wrong with that: Part of the board’s mandate is to gradually remove from the list ingredients that aren’t essential to food production. There are replacements available for most uses of carrageenan, which is used as a thickener and stabilizer, and manufacturers who truly can’t do without the stuff are permitted to petition for an exception. Everything by the book.
I’m not happy.
Here’s the problem. The legal authority to delist carrageenan will come from the fact that alternatives are available. That’s fine. But the rather large public debate that’s led up to the decision has been couched almost entirely in terms of food safety. And the NOSB shouldn’t be ruling on food safety. Certainly it is supposed to react when it knows an ingredient is unsafe, but it’s hard to see what qualifies this collection of producers, processors, and consumer advocates to make an independent decision on whether an ingredient is safe or not. It’s like letting Congress decide whether global climate change is real or permitting the Texas School Board declare that evolution is an open question. (I know, we’ve done both of those things, but do we like the results they lead to?)