In the ruling made in late-April, Europe’s highest court ruled that calcium derived from the red coral seaweed Lithothamnium calcareum was a ‘non-organic ingredient of agricultural origin,’ and its addition circumvented rules prohibiting the use of calcium carbonate to enrich organic products with calcium.
“The use of a non-organic ingredient of agricultural origin in organic food is permitted only under certain conditions,” the ruling stated.
“EU law lays down strict rules on the addition of minerals, such as calcium, in the production of organic food. As a rule, it excludes the use of calcium carbonate to enrich products with calcium.”
The Court’s decision rules against Natumi, a German organic food and beverage firm that amongst other products makes available its ‘Soja DrinkCalcium’ drink.
The product is labelled as ‘organic’ and uses ‘calcium’, ‘contains calcium-rich sea alga’ and ‘contains high-quality calcium from the sea alga Lithothamnium,’ as product descriptions.
Natumi acknowledged the use of calcium carbonate to enrich organic products with calcium was prohibited.
The firm added that it was precisely for that reason that many producers of soya-, rice- and cereal-based organic drinks added Lithothamnium calcareum to them, which is naturally rich in calcium.
According to Natumi, that alga is a natural alternative to calcium and its use for enriching organic food should be permitted.
The ruling is a setback to makers of these plant-based drinks that includes calcium-rich algae, and is often marketed as being rich in calcium and hence able to provide similar benefits to that of dairy milk.
In Europe, these organic drink makers include the Belgian giant Alpro, which has an organic brand, Provamel, on sale across Europe.
Other organic soy brands present in various European markets that contain the ingredient include Soy Alive, Lima, Soja Fit and Joya.
Natumi’s legal dispute on this issue stretches back to 2005, when an administrative court in Dusseldorf threw out the firm’s case after it faced large fines for using the algae and labelling its drinks as organic.
The case came to a head in 2016 when a German state court ruled the algae-sourced calcium had no place in an organic soy drink - a decision which Natumi subsequently appealed against.
The court asserted that only edible algae was allowed in organic foods. This excluded the alga Lithothamnium calcareum as the calcium contained in its cell walls rendered the algae inedible.
ECJ clarification of law
In asking the ECJ to provide an interpretation of the relevant EU law, the judges said the law ‘precludes the use of a powder obtained from the cleaned, dried and ground sediment of the alga Lithothamnium calcareum as a non-organic ingredient of agricultural origin, in the processing of organic foodstuffs such as rice- and soya-based organic drinks for the purpose of their enrichment with calcium.’
“It is impossible, without having recourse to that ingredient, to produce or preserve that food or to fulfil given dietary requirements provided for on the basis of EU legislation,” this latest ruling continued.
“It does not, however, appear that those are criteria are fulfilled in the case of the powder in question.”
Summing up the Court’s decision, the ruling also highlighted the EU law’s stance on the addition of minerals, such as calcium, in the production of organic food.
“As a rule, it excludes the use of calcium carbonate to enrich products with calcium, with the result that the addition of calcium in the processing of organic foodstuffs such as the rice- and soya-based drinks at issue, for the sole purpose of their enrichment with calcium, is prohibited.
“Consequently, authorising the use of the powder in question as a non-organic ingredient of agricultural origin in the processing of organic foodstuffs, in order to enrich them with calcium, would amount to permitting producers of those foodstuffs to circumvent that prohibition.”