Is organic always better?
As big business brings organics to the masses, some experts warn of serious quality issues
The organic industry has grown and changed dramatically from where it was even 10 years ago. Some experts worry that not all of these changes are good, and note that nowadays being organic doesn’t always mean that a product is safer and/or healthier.
The involvement of large food producers and retailers has turned organic food into a $14-billion business. Consumers pay a premium for organic because they believe it to be healthier, but charges of giant corporate feedlots and grain-fed cattle – which some say compromises nutrition -- are beginning to surface. To keep up with demand, organic products are now imported from foreign countries where standards, wages and working conditions are difficult to monitor and enforce.
Concerns over manufacturing procedures, protocols and possible lack of industry scrutiny are creating a rumbling in some pockets of the organic industry. For example, two of the world’s leading suppliers of Spirulina have raised concerns over the excessive heavy metal content found in some foreign-sourced organic spirulina, posing health dangers to children and pregnant or lactating women.
Hawaii-based Cyanotech Corporation and California-based Earthrise Nutritionals ceased production of their organic spirulina in 2005 after The National Organic Standards Board of the US Department of Agriculture (NOSB) disallowed the use of a mined, water-soluble form of natural nitrogen that was previously allowed in Organic Spirulina farming, even though its use poses no potential problems for ground seepage or runoff due to both companies’ utilization of pond liners and closed loop systems for their microalgae farming.
The companies had previously concluded that switching to the allowable nitrogen sources would compromise the safety of their Spirulina. Scientists from both companies determined that the potential for very high bacterial levels and heavy metals is far too great under the current organic standard,” says Dr. Gerald Cysewski, Cyanotech’s Founder and CEO. “Although consumers like to see the word ‘organic’ on the label, we won’t produce an Organic Spirulina if it compromises the safety of the product.”
For food to be certified as organic by the U.S. Agriculture Department, it must be free of most pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, genetic modification, and irradiation. True organic food to many people also means respect for locally produced food, respect for livestock and employees, and environmentally sustainable practices.
Only Spirulina grown in the United States has GRAS status—Spirulina grown in other countries does not meet GRAS specification and is thus not recognized as safe by the U.S. FDA for all functional food, beverage and supplement applications.
“If you want to be assured of having a high quality, safe Spirulina, you have to buy American,” said Dr. Cysewski.