After an idle year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is finally ready to hammer out promised guidance on fortified organic foods and beverages. The review comes in response to legal complaints filed with the USDA by organic watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute, based in Cornucopia, Wisc.
In early 2010, The Cornucopia Institute asked for the removal of additives like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ALA) from organic infant formula. Then last February, the group filed a formal complaint alleging that Horizon Organic introduced Horizon Fat-Free Milk Plus DHA Omega-3 containing synthetic DHA oil, an ingredient derived from algae, that is purportedly not legal in organic production.
Federal law prohibits synthetic additives in organic foods unless the additive appears on the USDA’s National Organic Program’s list of allowed substances. In 2007, the NOP permitted the use of DHA and ARA in organic foods, reasoning that these nutrients are GRAS—generally recognized as safe—under U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. However, in response to The Cornucopia Institute’s initial complaint, NOP staff discovered in spring 2010 that FDA policy “does not apply to the use of substances such as ARA, DHA, taurine or sterols that have been added to products such as infant formula, milk, pet food or energy bars as nutrients,” according to a memorandum released in April 2010 by Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator for the NOP.
While allowing a grace period for existing products, the USDA vowed to review its policy and write a ruling on added nutrients, vitamins and minerals in organics. As part of the process, the USDA accepted public comments through April 10 on the issue, which will be taken up at a USDA meeting later this month, said Soo Kim, spokesperson for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The public can also sign up to comment in person at the meeting, which happens on April 24-26 in Seattle, Wash. The USDA has indicated that the guidance will provide a transition time for businesses to comply with any new regulations.
What’s at stake?
On one hand, The Cornucopia Institute condemns the use of unapproved synthetic additives in products labeled as organic. “Essentially, the USDA admitted once again in its [March 16, 2011] letter that the DHA additives should never have been allowed in organics, and then goes on to state that they have chosen not to take enforcement action at this time,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute, in a release.
On another hand, several natural products industry players, such as the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Organic Trade Association and the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition, support a policy that allows food and beverage manufacturers to add nutrients to organic foods.
The OTA specifically backs using “essential” nutrients in organic foods or “accessory” nutrients that have gone through evaluation by the USDA. DHA and ARA fall into the “essential” category, according to Barbara Haumann, senior writer/editor for the OTA. “If you see the research that has been done by lipid chemists, you will see that DHA- and ARA-fortified milks are essential for young children as these nutrients are essential for brain development and acuity,” Haumann said.
As for CRN, the organization “supports a policy that continues to allow for the use of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients as long as the fortification material is currently permitted for use in food products by the FDA,” wrote Duffy MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for CRN, in a letter to the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic food policy.
According to OTA’s Haumann, fortification is not just about providing sensible nutrition, but the allowance helps organic products remain competitive in the marketplace. “OTA also supports the maximum freedom of choice for organic consumers, and believes that organic products should be nutritionally equal to their conventional counterparts,” Haumann said.
Duffy MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for CRN, agrees.“Consumers looking for organic products to meet their individual nutritional requirements, which vary based on gender and stage of life, shouldn’t be forced by policy to choose between organic foods and non-organic enriched foods that provide the nutrients they are looking for,” MacKay said. “For example, a vegan woman looking for organic soymilk fortified with calcium and vitamin D could potentially have to choose non-organic soymilk in order to meet her needs for calcium and vitamin D.”
How will a ruling affect retailers?
If the USDA doesn't allow nutrient additives in organics, MacKay expects to see gaps on store shelves. “Many existing organic products would have to be re-formulated and/or re-labeled," MacKay said. "Further, the potentially restrictive policy would limit industry growth and innovation for new products.” Some popular organic products may be affected, such as Earth’s Best Organic Infant Formula, which includes DHA and ARA to mimic breast milk, and Horizon milk products that contain DHA.
“I can see that argument,” said Michael Kanter, industry veteran and co-owner of Cambridge, Mass.-based Cambridge Naturals, of MacKay’s assessment. “But as much as I’m into nutrients and supplements, I’m not into adding too many things into organic foods. I’m a purist in that regard. I would rather people figure out better ways to eat.”
Kanter added that fortified foods are “not very elegant” because people assume that they’re getting certain quantities of nutrients in fortified foods when they may not. “Yes, it will be a blow to some stores [if the USDA does not allow added nutrients in organic foods],” Kanter said. “But it’s important to recognize that even in the natural foods business, we can go too far afield.”
What do consumers think?
Earlier this month, the OTA collaborated with KIWI magazine to gauge attitudes, preferences and behavior of families concerning fortification and organic products, according to Haumann. For nearly eight in ten respondents (78 percent), choosing fortified foods when grocery shopping for their family is either very important or somewhat important. And 87 percent said they’d either be more likely to buy organic versions of foods fortified with nutrients, vitamins or minerals, or it wouldn’t make a difference in their purchasing behaviors.
What nutrients made a difference? According to respondents, specific additions that would get them to toss a fortified product in their carts include “healthy fats” such as omega-3s (69 percent), calcium (67 percent), antioxidants (64 percent), vitamin D (63 percent) and probiotics (63 percent). On average, six in ten people say they would be more likely to buy an organic food fortified with any of these nutrients, vitamins and minerals.