Would a USDA Ban on Synthetic Fatty Acids in Organic Baby Formula Be Good for Consumers?

UPDATE: According to a press release issued April 27 by The Cornucopia Institute, the USDA's National Organic Program released a memo today (after the original publication of this blog post) saying that it would ban synthetic "accessory nutrients" from use in organic infant formula or baby food. An April 28 Washington Post article reported that the USDA will provide guidelines for how companies must phase out the additives in their organic products. The process could take more than a year.

Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is living up to promises that her agency, under the Obama Administration, will get tough on abuses involving the USDA organic seal. According to an April 26 Wall Street Journal article, Merrigan’s latest crackdown involves moving to ban synthetic versions of the fatty acids DHA and ARA from organic baby formula. Martek Biosciences Corp. is the largest supplier of synthetic fatty acids, and its DHA and ARA—sold under the life’sDHA and life’sARA brands—are found in more than 95% of all U.S. infant formulas, including organic formula sold under Abbott Lab's Similac and The Hain Celestial Group's Earth's Best brands. Similac with life'sDHA

The USDA’s actions are in response to a legal complaint filed by the organic watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute to enforce federal organic standards prohibiting the use of certain unapproved synthetic substances in organic infant formula and other organic products. “Consumers rightfully expect organic foods to be purer and safer than conventional foods—in part because federal regulations require that they be free from potentially harmful synthetic additives,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, farm and food policy analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. “But in the case of the synthetic, chemically extracted additives DHA and ARA, the system of federal regulations ensuring organic integrity was undermined by corporate lobbying and backroom deals during the Bush Administration.”

Although the USDA is not challenging the safety of synthetic fatty acids, the agency has decided that the organic regulators in 2006 should have sought public comment when they decided to include synthetic versions of DHA and ARA on a list of nonorganic ingredients that can be used in products carrying the USDA organic seal. “We don’t want an industry that acted in good faith to be harmed,” Merrigan told the Wall Street Journal. “On the other hand, we have a rule to uphold.”

Merrigan said the USDA will issue a draft guidance on the issue later this year that would provide food manufacturers a grace period to reformulate their organic food products. Once the draft guidance is issued, public comment will be collected for 60 days and then the USDA will issue a final ruling, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Martek’s life’sDHA is also found in other organic products, including WhiteWave’s Horizon Organic Milk Plus DHA. The company’s synthetic fatty acids, which have been on the market since 2002, are extracted from microorganisms using hexane, a non-organic chemical that is frequently used in the production of cooking oils but that has been banned from use in organic food products.

In its complaint to the USDA, the Cornucopia Institute cited reports of babies being sickened by the synthetic fatty acids added to infant formula. Martek spokeswoman Cassie France-Kelly told Nutraingredients-usa.com earlier this month that “there has been no statistical rise in the number of adverse events” since Martek’s ingredients were introduced into infant formulas in 2002. "The fact is babies get sick, some react to infant formula yes, but that could be milk proteins or other ingredients,” France-Kelly said. “To link these ailments with the presence of omega-3s and omega-6s is spurious at best."

Numerous studies have demonstrated the health benefits of omega-3s and omega-6s for infants, although The Cornucopia Institute said it rejects such findings. “Two recently published comprehensive scientific review studies on the topic both substantiate Cornucopia’s findings that challenge these claims,” the watchdog group wrote in a April 21 press release. “These two meta-analysis studies collectively consider the results of 18 clinical trials, and conclude there are no proven benefits to DHA/ARA supplementation in infant formula.”

In 2009, U.S. consumer sales of organic formula totaled $64 million, according to Nutrition Business Journal estimates. France-Kelly told the Wall Street Journal that a ban of its synthetic ARA and DHA from organic products “wouldn’t have a material impact” on Martek’s financial results because the company primarily sells its ingredients for use in conventional products.

NBJ is interested in your thoughts on this issue. Should synthetic fatty acids be banned from organic baby formula? Does such a move strengthen the integrity of the USDA organic seal, or does it hurt consumers by forcing them to choose between buying organic formula and formula that has been supplemented with the fatty acids that many parents believe are important to their babies’ health?

Related NBJ links:

2010 Organic Foods, Beverages and Personal Care

Martek Strengthens its Hold on Baby Formula Supply Market

2009 Raw Material & Ingredient Supply Report

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