Nation's Largest Corporate Dairy Violates USDA Ruling, Acts as if it's above the Law
CORNUCOPIA, Wis. 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, Codirector 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 health care 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.