USDA Disregards NOSB’s Recommended Prohibition on Nanomaterials in Organics

by Linley Dixon, PhD


Despite the consensus in the organic community that nanotechnology should be prohibited in organics, the USDA’s National Organic Program issued a new guidance in March that allows companies to petition for use of human-engineered nanomaterials in organic production and processing. The new guidance dismisses the recommendation of the NOP’s advisory body, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

Nanomaterials are tiny particles measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Due to their incredibly small size, nanoparticles ingested in food are fundamentally different and can move throughout the body and through cell structures in unknown ways. Experts on nanotechnology are virtually unanimous that nanoscale materials have the potential for health effects that are uniquely different from the same substances comprised of larger-sized molecules.

In the fall of 2010, the NOSB adopted a policy that defined “engineered nanomaterials” and recommended that the NOP prohibit them in organic products and take steps to avoid their accidental or incidental presence.

The NOSB further requested that “the NOP work with [them] on the adequacy of the definition, any potential areas of concern that may not be included in this definition, parts of this definition that are not workable within enforcement, and possible adjustments to the approximate size constraints that may be needed.”

The NOSB’s recommendation noted that “there is overwhelming agreement within the organic industry to prohibit nanotechnology in organic production and processing at this time.”  The NOSB was very clear in their wording that nanomaterials should not be allowed in organic production or in organic processing and packaging, just as GMOs are strictly prohibited.

In stark contrast to the NOSB recommendation, the new guidance from the NOP states: “The NOP does not consider nanotechnology to be intrinsically benign or harmful.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the USDA announced this spring that the agency had awarded $3.8 million in grants for nanotechnology research by nine universities.

In his policy memo on March 24, 2015, NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy opened the door to petitions for nanomaterials, stating: “As with other substances, no engineered nanomaterial will be allowed for use in organic production and handling unless the substance has been: 1) petitioned for use; 2) reviewed and recommended by the NOSB; and 3) added to the National List through notice and comment rulemaking” [emphasis added].

Sadly, this is just the latest chapter in the USDA’s NOP violating the will of Congress, by their gross disrespect for the expert, volunteer members of the NOSB, and other organic stakeholders, who spend thousands of dollars and untold hours in the collaborative process that develops NOSB resolutions and recommendations.

Based upon its study of the issue, the NOSB had expressed concerns about contamination of organic products with nanomaterials added to packaging, food contact surfaces and water sources. Their policy was informed by and aligned with the “precautionary principle.” The NOP guidance fails to address these concerns.

Engineered nanomaterials are already being added to conventional foods, fruit and vegetable coatings, food packaging materials, supplements and cosmetics. Titanium dioxide, for example, is used to increase the whiteness of milk, yogurt and dairy substitutes. Nanomaterials are also used in chocolate, salad dressings, cereal, pasta and other foods.

In response to consumer pressure, in recent years major food industry players have announced they are moving away from nanomaterials in their products. These include Kraft, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, which pledged to remove titanium dioxide in its powdered sugar.

No federal agency regulates the use of nanomaterials in food, and there is no requirement to list them on product labels.

This story was previously published in the Summer 2015 Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.

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