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Why krill could get into hot water

Krill—that unique oil with phospholipids that might help the body better incorporate its omega-3s than other sea-sourced oils—just got the thumbs up from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be used in functional foods. Specifically, the feds gave GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status to Aker BioMarine Antarctic’s Superba Krill oil.

Good news?

Yes, it’s exciting to imagine shelves lined with pink-hued beverages, cheeses and cereals that deliver a potent dose of omega-3s—after all, most Americans are woefully deficient in this essential fatty acid that benefits the heart, joints, mood and skin. However, a couple real factors could limit krill’s success.

  1. Whole Foods Market’s policy on krill oil could stunt product development.
    Last year, the retailer banished krill oil from its supplement aisles, citing sustainability issues. At the time, the retailer announced: “Krill are an important source of food for marine animals including penguins, seals and whales in the Antarctic. Declines of some predator populations in the areas where the krill fishery operates suggest that fishery management needs to better understand how to evaluate the prey requirements of other marine species in order to set sustainable catch levels for krill.”

    Because Whole Foods Market enjoys more than 25 percent of the market share of sales in the natural products sector, according to NFM’s 2011 Market Overview, the retailer's stand on krill oil could realistically put the brakes on new product development—that is, if the retailer extends its supplement ban to functional foods containing krill oil.

    My logic: I'm not sure whether manufacturers will make krill-infused functional foods just for independent naturals retailers. And mass-market shoppers have yet to develop a taste for krill products, so it will be a risk—wise though it may be—to try to capture their interest. (By the way, taste, literally, is a concern: No one wants to burp something fishy after eating a bowl of cereal. Supposedly, these organoleptic issues will be addressed by food manufacturers, but perhaps we'll have to see if Mikey likes it.)

    Of course, it’s conceivable that Whole Foods will reconsider its ban in light of the fact that Aker BioMarine has earned Marine Stewardship Council certification for its fishery based on the health of the krill biomass, impact on the immediate environment and full traceability.
  2. Big Pharma wants a piece of krill, which could threaten sustainable production.
    According to Eric Anderson, vice president of sales and marketing for Aker BioMarine, the uniqueness of krill’s phospholipids make them excellent carriers for EPA and DHA, as well as fat-soluble substances. “For this reason, our customers are looking at many possible applications in food, pharma, cosmetics, etcetera,” Anderson says. He adds that it’s too early to talk about specific krill-based prescription drugs, but I do wonder if a growing hunger for krill will stretch the limits.

    My logic: A few months ago, I spoke with Adam Ismail, director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s, about krill’s sustainability. He said that environmental experts like Dr. Simeon Hill of the British Antarctic Survey think that the amount of krill oil produced today is likely sustainable. Even better, we’re not even close to the catch limit set for krill by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a multinational treaty organization that governs krill fisheries. Still the question remains: Can we go up to the catch limit and still have a sustainable production? If Big Pharma catches on to krill, the result could be a limited supply for natural products, whether supplements or food.

Bottom line: In either case—1 or 2—natural products retailers could end up with fewer krill oil products on their shelves, for worse or better.

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