US spirulina companies drop organic label

Changes in US organic regulations have caused the two largest producers of spirulina here to reassess their marketing and reposition their products under the 'all-natural' instead of the coveted 'organic' title.

For Cyanotech and Earthrise, the decision was a long and difficult one. "When the regulations for organic marketing changed, we spent more than four years analyzing it," said Bob Capelli, vice president of sales for Cyanotech. "All of our scientists came to the same conclusion: we couldn't change our production methods and still turn out the quality of product that we always have at costs that weren't prohibitive."

Capelli maintains he has managed to convert all but 3-5 per cent of their former 'organic' customers and Cyanotech's sales of spirulina haven't suffered significantly as a result of the 'all natural' switch.

Here is the problem: both aquafarming companies use a closed-loop system — lined ponds and recycled water — to grow the blue-green microalgae, using Chilean-farmed nitrate as the nutrient. Because the nitrate is mined, it is not considered sustainable, and thus doesn't fit the 'organic' profile. As well, the nitrate is water soluble, and thus can seep into the ground or run off, and over time harm water sources.

"The NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) lumped us in with terrestrial farmers," Capelli said. "Under the new regulations, we'd have to use compost tea or manure in the manufacturing process, which isn't economical, and we wouldn't be able to say it is OK for vegetarians or vegans."

Cyanotech and Earthrise applied for and received a special extension from the NOSB, with a sunset clause, but by October last year, the end of the dispensation, they decided they couldn't meet the standards.

"This was a pretty unique case," said Jake Lewin of the California Certified Organic Farmers of the spirulina producers. "These companies received a unique dispensation. They had until October 2005 to come up with a solution, but couldn't do it. The use of nitrate is not allowed in any organic products shipped to Europe, either," he said. "But necessity is the mother of invention. I would generally expect someone to figure it out using a different nutrient stock."

Capelli and his scientists strongly disagree. "By changing to compost teas or manures as nitrogen sources, there are clear concerns with the safety and quality of organic spirulina grown under the new regulations. Companies considering purchasing organic spirulina now should first do their due diligence to test for heavy metals, bacterial loads and irradiation."

And he is not alone in suspecting the quality of 'organic' spirulina being imported from Asia now, due to lack of reliable oversight.

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