The European Union has strict rules for organic foods and its highest court ruled against allowing a calcium-rich powder derived from marine algae to be added to organic soy and rice drinks.
(CN) — In keeping with the European Union’s narrow definition of what foods can be labeled as organic, Europe’s highest court on Thursday found calcium sourced from marine algae needs to be classified as a mineral and therefore cannot be added to organic soy and rice drinks.
The European Court of Justice’s ruling is a blow to makers of plant-based drinks that often use calcium-rich algae to sell their products as rich in calcium and providing similar benefits to dairy milk.
The ruling came against Natumi, a German organic food company whose soy and rice drinks contain calcium derived from Lithothamnium calcareum, a red coral seaweed made up mostly of calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate. Natumi adds ground dry algae powder to its drinks.
Other organic drink makers in Europe, including Belgian giant Alpro, use the algae too. Alpro and Natumi did not immediately respond to queries from Courthouse News seeking comment.
Natumi was told to stop adding the algae to its organic drinks in 2005 by authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. Those authorities said the algae is a mineral and therefore unsuitable for organic drinks.
The company advertised its soy and rice drinks as organic and “calcium-rich” from “high-quality” sea algae. Faced with fines for using the algae and labeling its drinks as organic, the company took the matter to the German courts.
An administrative court in Dusseldorf dismissed Natumi’s case in 2005 and the company appealed to a higher administrative court. The legal case was stayed for several years as EU rules on organic foods were adopted. In 2016, the higher German court also rejected Natumi claims, arguing that only edible algae are allowed in organic foods. The alga Lithothamnium calcareum is not edible because of the presence of calcium in its cell walls.
The German court also ruled that the alga is not of agricultural origin but a mineral, making it unsuitable for organic products.
Arguing alga is a natural alternative to calcium that should be permitted in organic foods, Natumi appealed to Germany’s federal administrative court and that court asked Europe’s highest court for a ruling.
The Luxembourg-based court said allowing Natumi to use the seaweed would undermine EU rules governing organic foods.
“Such an interpretation would, therefore, have the effect of rendering ineffective the strict rules relating to the addition of products and substances such as minerals in the production of organic food,” the court said in its ruling.
The court noted that EU law lays down strict rules on the addition of minerals, such as calcium, in the production of organic food and that the use of calcium carbonate is generally forbidden to fortify organic products.
In December, a magistrate at the Court of Justice, Advocate General Richard De La Tour, advised the high court to deem Lithothamnium calcareum a mineral.
“The philosophy underpinning the designation ‘organic’ is clear: additions of non-organic substances must be kept to an absolute minimum,” De La Tour wrote in his opinion.
De La Tour said the “full extent of the ambiguity in Natumi’s position” was laid clear when the company both invoked calcium enrichment in its nutrition claims and denied the algae are a mineral when added to food.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.