Illegal Synthetic Additive Found in New Organic Milk

Reader Contribution by Staff
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The Cornucopia Institute has again done some great reporting on the failure of agribiz giant Dean Foods to follow national regulations for organic foods.  Specifically, this time Dean is promoting a new product, organic Horizon Fat-Free Milk Plus DHA Omega-3, which Cornucopia’s news release explains is illegal in at least two respects. According to Cornucopia’s report, the DHA Omega-3 is not approved as an additive to certified organic milk, plus Dean’s health claims about it are not supported by scientific evidence.

Here’s the report:

A prominent organic industry watchdog filed a formal legal complaint today alleging that a newly introduced product, by the giant dairy conglomerate Dean Foods, includes a synthetic nutritional oil that is prohibited in organics.  The product, Horizon Fat-Free Milk Plus DHA Omega-3, bears the USDA organic seal despite a ruling in 2010 by the USDA that the proprietary DHA oil, an ingredient derived from algae, is not legal in organic production.

“This is a willful and flagrant violation of the law governing organic foods,” states Mark A. Kastel, Co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.

Federal law strictly prohibits synthetic additives in organic foods unless the additive appears on the USDA’s National Organic Program’s list of allowed substances.  Ingredients are included on this list only after careful review and approval by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an expert advisory panel, and the Secretary of Agriculture.

Synthetic materials on the list include benign substances like baking powder that are not available organically but important for commercial food production.

“The specific type of laboratory-produced DHA oil that Horizon adds to its milk has never been reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board or approved by the USDA,” explains Charlotte Vallaeys, a Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute.

Due to its past unauthorized use, federal regulators recently issued a statement confirming that adding these synthetic oils violates the Organic Foods Production Act.  “It is therefore absolutely baffling that Dean Foods would introduce a product with synthetic DHA and have the audacity to label it organic, and it’s even more disturbing that their certifier would allow this,” Vallaeys added.

In addition to Dean Foods, a few other food processors and several infant formula manufacturers have included the synthetic additive, manufactured by Martek Biosciences Corporation, in organic products, despite their lack of approval.

From documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Cornucopia discovered that the USDA, under the Bush Administration, had informally allowed the additives in organic foods after a backroom deal with corporate lobbyists.

After numerous appeals by The Cornucopia Institute, and an investigative article in the Washington Post that exposed corruption under the previous administration, new leadership at the USDA’s National Organic Program publicly acknowledged, in April 2010, that the Bush administration had misinterpreted federal rules when allowing Martek’s DHA algal oil in organics.

“According to the USDA ruling, companies should be in the process of phasing out the use of these unapproved additives in organic foods,” states Vallaeys.  ”The last thing we expected was to see a marketer actually introduce a new product with these unapproved synthetic substances.  With this move, Dean Foods seems to be stating that they do not care about organic integrity, and couldn’t care less about complying with the organic law.”

In August 2010, with the damaging coverage in the Washington Post, and the determination of its illegality by the USDA, Martek Biosciences finally petitioned the oils for approval in organic foods.  The National Organic Standards Board, which reviews petitions and advises the USDA’s National Organic Program on these matters, has yet to rule on Martek’s request.

Due to the ongoing controversy, and questions about the safety and efficacy of Martek’s nutritional ingredients, approval of their petition by the NOSB is far from certain.

Martek produces its patented DHA additives from microalgae species that have never previously been part of the human diet, and that are fermented in a medium including corn syrup that is likely genetically engineered (genetic engineering is banned in organics).

According to Martek’s petition, the processing of their algal DHA additives includes hydrolysis with enzymes, extraction with petrochemical solvents, and other “non-organic processing aids” such as “food acids.” Petrochemical solvents, including the neurotoxic compound hexane, are also explicitly banned in organic production.

Documents obtained from the Food and Drug Administration lead some researchers and healthcare providers to believe that these synthetic ingredients, when added to infant formula, cause serious adverse reactions in some infants, including virulent diarrhea and vomiting, sometimes resulting in hospitalization.

“When they buy organic, consumers expect wholesome, real foods without synthetic ingredients or manufactured with questionable processing aids,” states Vallaeys.  ”Real organic milk contains healthy fatty acids.  It makes no sense to replace them with synthetic oil that was developed in a laboratory and produced in a factory.”

Dean Foods’ Horizon brand is already held in low esteem by many in the organic industry because of its dependence on industrial-scale “factory farms” that have historically confined their cattle rather than promoting fresh pasture intake.  Research shows that pasturing cows leads to milk that is naturally higher in omega-3 fatty acids.

A study conducted by The Milkweed, a dairy industry newspaper, showed that Horizon brand milk tested lower in certain nutrients, including beneficial fatty acids, than almost all of its primary marketplace competitors.

In its previously published landmark report on infant formula, The Cornucopia Institute questioned claims, popular in advertising, that Martek’s additives benefit brain and eye health for infants and children.  Two scientific review studies substantiated Cornucopia’s findings on the effects of DHA supplementation, revealing that only one of 18 included peer-reviewed scientific studies showed an advantage to development.  Both meta-analysis studies concluded that DHA does not benefit cognitive and visual development in infants.

An additional study examining DHA effects on toddler development, applicable to Horizon’s new supplemented milk, found no statistically significant results on tests of mental prowess between a group of children given DHA supplements and a control group.  The study was funded by Martek itself, and published in Clinical Pediatrics.

Yet Dean Foods suggests, in its marketing materials, that its DHA-supplemented milk benefits children’s brain health.  “Even if this DHA oil were legal for inclusion in organic products, there is virtually no research, other than a small minority of industry-funded studies, to indicate that Martek’s oil benefits children’s development,” Kastel added.  “This is a marketing gimmick, plain and simple.”

Cornucopia formally asked the USDA to take immediate action on this issue to protect the public and the integrity of the organic label.

“It appears that companies like Dean Foods and Martek think they are above the law,” states Kastel.  “It’s time for the USDA to show that the organic regulations and standards are not a matter of interpretation by powerful corporations, but mean something and must be followed by everyone in the organic community.”

Photo by Fotolia/Okea 

Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years.Connect with her on.