The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will meet Oct. 24-26 in St. Paul, Minnesota for its five-year sunset cycle review of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List) and vote on several agriculture related items. Among the categories, “Flavors” will undergo review and a vote, the outcome of which could impact the tea industry.
The NOSB will vote on whether currently allowed fertilizers, pest control products, livestock treatments, processing aids and other ingredients will continue to be deemed acceptable as organic compliant and usable by companies that create certified organic products.
All materials on the national list come under NOSB vote every five years. This year, the NOSB will vote on more than 40 items. Results of the vote will be implemented in 2020.
Gwendolyn Wyard, Vice President of Regulatory and Technical Affairs at the Organic Trade Association (OTA), explained there are criteria in the Organic Foods Production Act and in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations and the National List is essentially a list of exceptions for use in processed products. These exceptions allow for the use of non-organic ingredients and processing when organic is not available or the source is scarce. Ingredients and processes on this list also have to be safe for the environment and safe for human health.
“This sunset review is a public process that goes out for public comment,” Wyard said. “The National Organic Standards Board is mandated to make sure that these materials still meet the criteria of the law to remain on the National List.”
Scott Svihula of Hula Consulting said, “What is key to the tea industry and also the coffee industry is that most, if not all—a good 90 percent, if not more—of the flavors that are used to make flavored teas that are organic meet the organic regulations but are not certified organic. They are natural, non-GMO flavors that are made to meet the organic regulations regarding flavors that are not certified.” These are the flavors that will be affected by the NOSB vote.
A current USDA regulation, referred to as the “95 percent rule” allows companies that use these organic compliant flavors to keep their products labeled as certified organic. This regulation stipulates that up to 5 percent of a tea’s formula can be comprised of non-certified organic items. “That is typically flavors,” said Svihula. For example, a certified organic Earl Grey tea might contain 5 percent bergamot flavor.
In this case, “natural flavors” signifies organic compliant classified flavors—which means they are conventionally grown, but cannot be produced using any synthetic solvents, synthetic carrier systems or contain any artificial preservatives. If the NOSB votes to not renew natural flavors, that would mean tea companies would have to use certified organic flavors to continue to label their tea blends as organic. This could mean higher priced sourcing and potentially higher prices for consumers.
“Certified organic flavors tend to be super expensive and tend to be light in aroma and flavor intensity,” Svihula said. “So you have to use more of it and it’s already usually at a 20-30 percent premium.”
However, Wyard, who anticipates the NOSB will renew the listing of natural flavors, said there is another facet to this issue.
“The discussion and controversy, is that there are a lot of organic flavors out there,” Wyard said. “There are a lot of manufacturers of organic flavors that are concerned about having this kind of broad category allowance for using natural flavors when there are so many organic flavors available.” The 95 percent rule does not currently mandate using organic flavors if they are available.
Wyard said there has been significant development in the number of organic flavors since 2002, when the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service instated the National Organic Program establishing uniform standards for organically-produced goods. The abundance of organic peppermint is one example. However, a tea company currently selling its blend as organic could use natural peppermint, instead.
A few years ago, the OTA submitted a petition to the NOSB to revise the annotation on natural flavors to require organic flavors when they are available, added Wyard. NOSB passed a recommendation to change the annotation. It then went on to the USDA, which created a proposed rule that received positive comments. The USDA has yet to release its final rule. If the final rule supports the revised annotation, this would mean tea purveyors would have to demonstrate to their certifiers that the flavor they need is not available organically or is not right for the product if they want to use a natural flavor. “We think the outcome is going to be increased usage of organic flavors and as the Organic Trade Association that is, of course, what we want. We want to encourage the development and the use of organic flavors,” Wyard said.
Stakeholders have a limited time in which to share their feedback, as the deadline is Oct. 4. This is the last opportunity stakeholders have to inform the NOSB and their vote at the fall 2018 meeting. The decision will be incorporated into the NOSB’s five-year sunset timeline.
For more information and to give feedback, visit the Organic Trade Association website.
To comment directly to the National Organic Standards Board, visit Regulations.gov.