Organic certification of food grade micro algae – wishful thinking or soon reality?

161003-essentials-sports-shotjeAlgae are in the spotlight as a sustainable source of protein, fibres and fatty acids. A form of sustainability is found in organic production. Besides sustainable, consumers perceive organic products as healthy and safe. Therefore producers of microalgae would like to use the organic logo. We previously reported on this topic in an earlier post this year. This post reports what is new in the regulatory framework. It furthermore elaborates on the legal and practical obstacles that algae producers currently encounter with respect to the use of the organic logo, as regulated here, and it explores potential solutions.

Various species of algae

The term “algae” covers both macro- and microalgae. Macroalgae – popularly called seaweed – can be seen with the naked eye. Examples include nori (sushi sheets), sea lettuce and kelp. Microalgae are single-celled organisms up to 50 micrometres in size, and thus not or hardly visible to the naked eye. There are many different species of microalgae, of which Chlorella and Spirulina are the best known. Both species have a history of safe use as application in food for human consumption. This means that the Novel Food legislation does not preclude the use of these algae in foodstuffs.

Organic certification


For a general description of the content of the EU Organic Regulation, we refer to our previous post. In essence, it comprises an overall system from farm to fork for the production of foodstuffs including micro and macroalgae. Furthermore, it provides for the possibility that so-called compliant products imported into the EU from recognized countries may be marketed as organic when certain conditions are met. The bottleneck so far was that the EU Organic Regulation did not provide for specific rules for the production of microalgae. This situation was partly remedied by the so-called Interpretative Note that the Commission published in July 2015. This document accepted the application of private standards recognized or accepted by the Member States, provided that they did not impose additional measures upon products originating from other Member States. Furthermore, it was established that until the moment that detailed production rules for micro algae would be determined, the production of microalgae must comply with the rules applicable to the production of either plants or seaweed. As a consequence, there was no consensus about the exact production standards for organic labelling of microalgae produced in Europe. At the same time it was – and is – possible for organically produced microalgae in third countries to be imported as such in the EU. Because of this situation European microalgae products are one-nil down.

Further regulations


In April this year, the Commission adopted a new Regulation changing the executive provisions of the EU Organic Regulation. In this 2016 Regulation, the Commission stipulates that to date no detailed production rules have been defined for microalgae used as food. Because of this it is still unclear what production rules govern the cultivation of microalgae. Therefore it should be clarified that detailed production rules that apply to the production of seaweed also apply to the production of microalgae for use as foodstuff. This clarification has been obtained by extending the production rules for seaweed applicable to feed, based on an amendment of the executive provisions of the EU Organic Regulation, also to food. The 2016 Regulation will enter into force on May 7, 2017.

Practical problems


Are thus all obstacles removed to organic certification of microalgae produced in the EU? Unfortunately not, because microalgae cannot be compared with seaweed just like that; as seaweed is a macroalgae. Although there are similarities between growing micro and macro algae, the harvest thereof is different. As to the similarities: both macro and micro algae need dissolved minerals and CO2 to grow since they do not break down manure automatically. Therefore, fertilizer and manure derivative products are usually added to the water in order to make the minerals contained in the fertilizers bioavailable to the algae. However, the addition of fertilizer or manure derivative products to an algae culture results into the harmful organisms present therein, such as toxins and heavy metals, to mix with the algae. Products made from algae to which manure or manure derivatives solutions are added, may therefore constitute a very high food safety risk. As to the differences between macro and micro algae: in the harvest of seaweed only the macro algae are harvested. The organisms and bacteria present in the water remain there and the product can be cleaned from harmful substances. However, this is not possible with the harvest of microalgae because of their small diameter. As a result, the bacteria, fungi and other organisms present in the culture are harvested as well and partly end up in the final product. The food safety of such products is questionable.

Risks of open cultivation systems


The vast majority of micro-algae are being cultivated in open ponds. These systems are afflicted by external influences. For that reason, a pond is continuously contaminated with undefined organisms such as bacteria, fungi, aquatic insects, toxins and even faeces. A method to inhibit this unwanted growth is the use of high concentrations of iodine. Algae products from such systems often contain very high concentrations of iodine and they therefore constitute a potential health risk. Nevertheless, third countries other than recognized countries do certify these products as being organic. As a matter of fact, they are marketed outside the system of similar products and recognized countries. This forms a troublesome form of competition for micro algae produced in the EU.

Advantages of closed systems


In closed systems, there are hardly any external influences. In these systems, the entire process of cultivation up to and including harvest can be closely monitored. In the unfortunate situation that any contamination occurs, this can promptly be detected and appropriately responded to. This way of cultivation of algae excludes the risk of unwanted organisms in the final product. However, in order to be able to grow algae under these conditions, the minerals required for the start of growth of the algae have to be added in a different way than in the open nature. Production of microalgae in closed systems therefore usually takes place by the addition of dissolved minerals.

Addition of minerals hinders organic certification


In organic production only a limited number of permitted minerals can be used. When an algae producer uses minerals that are not on the list of permitted substances, he cannot certify his products as being organically grown for the time being. From that perspective, it is important to mention that for some minerals, such as nitrogen and phosphate, there are no suitable natural alternatives or sources available. Mineral salts extracted from mines for instance are not considered safe for use in food. Therefore, currently isolated variants, of which the food safety is guaranteed, are used. Even if an algae producer could apply for admission of these minerals on the list, this has a downside. Normally, these minerals form an integral part of a specific production process containing proprietary information that cannot be disclosed by an algae producer just like that. When filing a request for authorization of minerals in organic production, the probability is low that confidential elements of the relevant production processes remain confidential in such an application.

Possible solutions


We see two possible solutions to the problems identified above. Firstly, we expect that when the confidentiality of so-called proprietary data in an application for authorization of certain minerals in organic production could be ascertained for a minimum period, this would give a big boost to the organic cultivation of microalgae. Such regimes also exist for dossiers to be filed for the authorization of Novel Foods and of health claims, so this is not uncommon in food law. Secondly, a so-called grace period for substances currently used in closed culture systems could provide a solution. This grace period would need to apply until there is an acceptable functional alternative available for the envisaged substances in terms of quality, quantity and price. In both cases, of course, food safety is paramount. This means that the added minerals should be proven to be food-safe. Application of the proposed solutions would enable EU producers of microalgae the opportunity to use the EU organic logo for food-safe algae products. This would be a win-win for consumers and producers.

This post is based on a Dutch article that was co-written by the Dutch algae manufacturer Nutress, belonging to the Phycom group. It was published in the September 2016 issue of VMT, a Dutch magazine for the food business. The picture was kindly provided by Nutress, who owns the copyright thereof.

 


All you wanted to know about organic food in the EU

EU_Organic_Logo_Colour_OuterLine_rgbThis contribution aims to provide you with a brief overview of the EU Organic legislation and recent developments. Being able to market products as ‘organic’ could be a plus for the food business operator (FBO) as the demand for sustainable production and organic food increases. This contribution focuses on the EU-system of organic certification of food products and will specifically look at the position of organic microalgae manufactured in the EU. Under the current legislative framework, these could not be marketed as such in the EU. This has changed since an interpretative note of the Commission of last summer. If you are an FBO interested in marketing organic microalgae, this for sure is of interest to you.

Organics Regulation – scope

First of all, what is ‘organic production’? According to recital 1 of the Organics Regulation organic production is: “(…) an overall system of farm management and food production that combines best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, the application of high animal welfare standards and a production method in line with the preference of certain consumers for products produced using natural substances and processes” (see also the definition in Article 2(a)).

What is covered by the Organics Regulation? Only agricultural plants, seaweed, livestock, aquaculture and animals are regulated under the Organics Regulation. For example, if an FBO wants to produce organic seaweed, all the processes have to be in compliance with the Organics Regulation. This approach is known as the ‘farm to fork approach’, which means every step in the production process throughout the supply chain has to comply with the Organics Regulation.

Organics Regulation – structure

The Organics Regulation has a layered structure. The following three layers of provisions can be found:

  1. General production rules (articles 1, 7 – 10), which apply to all forms of organic production.
  2. Production rules for different sectors (articles 11 – 21): general farm production rules and production rules for specific categories of products and production rules for processed feed and food.
  3. Detailed production rules (article 42).

If there are no production rules for the sector (layer 2), only the general production rules (layer 1) apply.

Organics certificate

Compliance with the Organics Regulation has to be demonstrated by obtaining certificates from a certification body. (See the following link for a list of competent certification bodies in different Member States). In the event a certification body audits the FBO marketing organic products and it encounters violations of the Organics Regulation, it can decide to block certain non-compliant batches of products pending an investigation. Depending on the outcome, the certification body can subsequently decide to withdraw the certificate. If the certificate is withdrawn, the FBO is no longer allowed to market the products as ‘organic’. In case of severe violations, the competent authority may impose a recall of the products. In the Netherlands, Skal Biocontrole is the designated Control Authority responsible for the inspection and certification of organic companies in the Netherlands, within the context of Regulations: (EC) Nr. 834/2007 (Organics Regulation), (EC) Nr. 889/2008 and (EC) Nr. 1235/2008 (import of organic products from third countries). Skal monitors the entire Dutch organic chain on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs.

The EU organic logo

The EU logo is regulated in a separate Commission Regulation. The main objective of the European logo is to make organic products easier identifiable by the consumers. Furthermore it gives a visual identity to the organic farming sector and thus contributes to ensure overall coherence and a proper functioning of the internal market in this field. For practical information regarding the EU logo, see this link and this link.

Organic microalgae

Prior to July 2015, FBO’s could not obtain an organic certification for microalgae manufactured within the EU for the use in their food products. FBO’s from third countries (non-EU) could market their products in the EU based on either the import procedure as set out in Article 33 (2) (import from recognised third countries) or the import procedure laid down in Article 33 (3) of the Organics Regulation (import of products certified by recognised control bodies). The strange situation was created where ‘organic’ microalgae could only be imported into the EU and not be produced within the EU.

How come? All agricultural products were considered to fall within one of the different production rules for specific categories of products (layer 2) and microalgae for food production were not included. Furthermore, detailed EU production rules for microalgae were absent (layer 3). (Article 42 (2) Organics Regulation).

The Interpretative note of the European Commission (Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development) of July 2015 opened up the possibility for companies in both EU Member States and third countries to produce microalgae, which can be marketed as ‘organic’ and carry the EU organic logo. Both the existing production rules for plants (Article 12 Organics Regulation) and seaweed (Article 13 Organics Regulation) could be suitable for microalgae.

‘Until an implementing act adopted on the basis of Article 38 (of Regulation 834/2007) has clarified the situation, operators producing organic micro algae (except for use as feed for aquaculture) have therefore to comply with the general production rules, which apply to all forms of organic production (“layer 1”) and with the production rules for the sector of plants or seaweed (“layer 2”).’

The use of microalgae as feed for aquaculture is not covered in the Interpretative note, as microalgae as feed are already subject to the detailed production rules. The rules for the collection and farming of seaweed apply according to Article 6a of Commission Regulation (EC) No 889/2008.

The interpretation opens up the possibility to certify microalgae to be used as food (or as an ingredient in food) as being organic. When an implementing act will be published and enter into force is still unknown. A proposal for a new Regulation repealing the Organics Regulation has been published. On 5 November 2015 a report from the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development on the proposal was published, introducing 402 amendments. The current status of the proposal is available through this link.

Aside from enforcement by a national control authority in case of non-compliance with the Organics legislation, consumers and other interested parties often also have the possibility to lodge a complaint relating to advertising of organic products. However, advertising of (organic) products is a topic to be covered in another contribution on Food Health Legal. Stay tuned!


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