Choppy waters for omega-3s

The omega-3 world started the year on a high note with the news that the 1 billion strong mega-market of China was opening up to DHA and EPA derived from fish, thanks to a petition by Ocean Nutrition Canada. Both oils and powders were approved as Novel Food Ingredients for all food and drink categories; up until then, only DHA was permitted for infant foods.

Then, only two months later, on March 2, news broke that the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation filed suit against eight fish-oil product manufacturers for allegedly exceeding 'safe harbour' limits for PCB contamination, under California's Proposition 65 law.

As the group is the winningest legal team in Prop 65 history (as in, $14 million over eight years in 'settlements'), no one is taking the lawsuit lightly.

Consumers apparently aren't, either. The latest sales data by SPINS shows that fish oil sales in the combined conventional/natural channels took a notable dip after news of the fish oil lawsuit broke. For the week ending March 6, sales totalled $8.03 million. But the next week, sales were only $6.59 million. (See chart below.)

The most recent data available at press time, for the week ending April 17, indicated weekly sales at $6.45 million.

But even the fish oil furor was one-upped in early April, when DuPont announced its new EPA product, New Harvest. LinkedIn message boards were practically on fire. "Is it me, or does this seem weird?" opined "Since when has the manufacturing company known for Corian, Teflon, Kevlar, crop protection chemicals, and automotive finishes gotten into the supplement industry?"

New Harvest, sold at GNC stores, delivers 600mg of EPA in every 1,200mg softgel. What has everyone talking, though, is the fact it is fish-free. Up until now, vegetarian omega-3s have only come in the ALA and DHA varieties; only fish contain EPA.

Or so we thought.

When asked by FI how New Harvest is made, New Harvest Marketing Manager Kathryn Lee said it is "made in a yeast fermentation process, similar to the process used to produce beer." The proprietary process was assessed for safety by "numerous studies, which were reviewed and approved by the FDA as part of a New Dietary Ingredient (NDI) notification," the company said.

"EPA is not made by any yeast known to man," said Marco Aurilio, technical director of Chosen Foods Corp, a natural food ingredient company. "Without any doubt, New Harvest EPA-rich oil is a GMO-derived product."

Aurilio pointed to a patent recently awarded to a research team at the University of Washington, for the production of a gene, (fat-1 from nematode C. elegans) genetically engineered into the yeast S. cerevisiae. This allows the yeast to convert omega-6 EFA into EPA.

In light of ongoing bad press over fish oil sustainability and contamination, it is possible American consumers will not care about a little gene tweaking.

"Clearly we have an EPA omega-3 supply challenge," Aurilio said. "But even though demand is putting more stress on our marine resources, it has also created better marine stewardship. Many omega-3 suppliers, such as EPAX, are gaining consumer trust due to their stewardship philosophy. Organisations such as Friends of the Sea and Marine Stewardship Council have developed excellent criteria for certifying sustainable marine harvest, while also launching global efforts to restore fisheries. DHA from algae and ALA from plants such as chia are also excellent and sustainable forms of omega-3, which can supply global demand."

Speaking of sustainability, there is krill, where things haven't been much easier.

On the same day the fish oil lawsuit was filed in California, Florida-based Valensa International announced it was launching a krill oil ingredient guaranteed to be shelf-stable for two years. Called Deep Ocean Krill, the ingredient employs Aker BioMarine's Superba Krill Oil as a base and is fortified with Valensa's Zanthin Natural Astaxanthin.

But then on May 8, Whole Foods' Markets made the stunning announcement that it would discontinue selling krill supplements due to concerns about sustainability. The trade association GOED, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s, is urgently trying to meet with Whole Foods to discuss the decision.

What does all this mean for Americans seeking omega-3s? Will consumers start fleeing fish and krill, and rush into the comfy lap of flax, chia and genetically modified yeast?

Stay tuned. This story isn't over.

Vitamins & Supplements, Fish Oil Concentrate as a Primary Ingredient


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