Watchdog Requests Federal Investigation, Files Ethics Charges
WASHINGTON, DC: The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry research and watchdog organization, announced it has formally requested the USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) to investigate corruption at its National Organic Program resulting in the use of illegal synthetics in organic food and then allowing powerful corporations to "game the system" for approval "after the fact."
The controversy surrounds products developed by Martek Biosciences Corporation. Martek, part of a $12 billion Dutch-based conglomerate, recently petitioned for approval of its genetically modified soil fungus and algae as nutritional supplements in organic food.
Martek's formulated oils are processed with synthetic petrochemical solvents in a blend containing a myriad of other synthetic chemicals. Supplements derived from these oils, commonly marketed as DHA and ARA, are being added to milk, infant formula and other organic foods by such companies as Dean Foods (Horizon), Abbott Laboratories (Similac) and Nurture, Inc. (Happy Baby).
"This is a long-standing controversy that the USDA seems to think is just going to go away," said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.
After a formal legal complaint by Cornucopia, and an investigative story by the Washington Post, the USDA announced in April 2010 that it had "inappropriately" allowed Martek oils to be included in organic foods.
The scandal contributed to the removal of the previous director of the National Organic Program (NOP), who overruled her staff's decision finding Martek supplements were illegal in organics--after she met with a prominent Washington lobbyist, William J. Friedman.
The former NOP director's decision was reversed in April 2010. But instead of immediately ordering the removal of these unapproved synthetics from organic food, the Obama/Vilsack administration at the USDA delayed enforcement by 18 months in an apparent effort to permit corporate lobbyists to properly petition for review and possibly legal inclusion in organic food.
"It's unacceptable that these materials are still in organic food and that corporations think they can manipulate the system and get away with it," said Kastel. "It's even worse because, according to our research and reports at the FDA, some babies have become ill after consuming Martek supplements in infant formula."
In December, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the expert panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA Secretary on organic matters, narrowly approved the Martek petitions for their patented versions of DHA and ARA. "All hell broke loose at the meeting in Savannah as the controversy grew extremely heated," Kastel noted.
In their complaint to the OIG, Cornucopia alleges that Martek misrepresented their novel, synthetic product and manipulated the vote by the NOSB.
"Martek oils, marketed under the Life'sDHA - brand and included in organic infant formula, milk and baby food, are processed with petrochemical solvents like hexane or isopropyl alcohol, both of which are explicitly banned in organic production," stated Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Farm and Food Policy at Cornucopia.
Although Martek told the board that they would discontinue the use of the controversial neurotoxic solvent n-hexane for DHA/ARA processing, they did not disclose what other synthetic solvents would be substituted. Federal organic standards prohibit the use of all synthetic/petrochemical solvents, including isopropyl alcohol, which is currently used to extract DHA algal oil for use in products such as Horizon milk.
Martek again brought in William "Jay" Friedman, with the powerful Washington law firm of Covington and Burling, to lead their approval process. Friedman appeared to deliberately mislead NOSB members into believing that the powdered form of Martek's DHA oil was not covered in the petition. This particular product formulation uses microencapsulation (banned in organics) and includes a number of additional synthetic materials that have never been reviewed or approved for use in organics.
When asked by NOSB Board chairperson, Tracy Miedema, "Are we approving dried powder or just oil?" Friedman stated on the record, "I can answer that. That's not the petitioned material."
Friedman's statement was inconsistent with Martek's formal petition to the NOSB, which states that "the petitioned material is unchanged from that which was authorized previously," referring to the USDA's earlier corrupted authorization of all Martek's products, including the powdered form.