Synthetic DHA and ARA in organics?

Sound Consumer | May 2011

by Goldie Caughlan, Quality Standards Specialist

In late April, the 15 members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) met for four days in Seattle. It was their first meeting here — but we hope not the last!

In the 19 years that the NOSB has existed, most meetings have been in the other Washington. That limits in-person attendance by interested consumers, farmers, fishers, environmentalists and other stakeholders — especially from the agriculturally important Pacific Northwest.

In Seattle, the NOSB listened to probably about 150 individuals who used their five minutes at the microphone to voice opinions and concerns. Passions flair sometimes as speakers testify emotionally on issues they care about.

I had to submit this article before the date of the meetings. But I expect at least several people delivered sharply critical comments about one controversial NOSB committee proposal.

The Handling Committee proposed recently to allow any synthetic additives in organic products without review as long as they qualify as “nutrients.” It’s shocking that anyone on the NOSB even would consider allowing synthetic additives without review.

The reality is that a few companies have skirted the regulations and have been adding these synthetic “nutrients” to products, apparently for several years. As unpalatable as it is, there’s a political explanation, not easily dismissed.

While the NOSB did not review the ingredients as the law requires, a USDA official in the previous administration apparently had “approved” them, personally. A Freedom of Information Act request revealed the decision was made without due process and over the objections of other USDA staff.

DHA and ARA

The synthetics in question are two forms of DHA omega-3 (from algae) and ARA omega-6 (from soil fungus). They’re extracted using petroleum-derived hexane solvent and other unapproved substances.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls them “nutrient oils” and has granted them Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status. But keep in mind that FDA allows many things (including GMOs) but that does not necessarily mean they’re “safe” or “approved synthetics” in authentic organic products!

About a year ago, with a new National Organic Program (NOP) administrator at the helm, USDA acknowledged that these substances are in a handful of organic products illegally. But the NOP did not act to remove the products from market and did not prohibit companies from using the additives in products with the organic seal.

The NOP says these additives were allowed wrongfully, due to misinterpretation of the organic regulations. Several companies, meanwhile, continue to use them in organic products.

What is the cost to authentic organic producers when the integrity of organic standards is diminished in the eyes of all consumers? I can tell you that I, as a former NOSB member, will have used my five minutes on the NOSB microphone to call out committee members for such an outrageous recommendation.

What’s especially objectionable is that these synthetic nutrient additives dominate all “organic” baby formulas. There isn’t even one organic formula labeled for infants without DHA and ARA. (See sidebar)

The shameful marketing claims by formula companies for DHA and ARA in “organic” and non-organic baby formulas marketed worldwide are scandalous. Google “10 reasons to stop this DHA claim” by the International Baby Food Action Network for details. They raise issues reminiscent of the 1970s boycott against Nestlé for promoting infant formula over nursing in poor countries; critics said Nestlé’s campaign increased suffering and infant mortality.

PCC’s view is that all synthetic additives including alleged “nutrients” must be reviewed individually as the law clearly requires. Organic consumers expect that any synthetic additive in organics has been scrutinized through the full regulatory process — no bypasses allowed!

Speaking truth to power activates an important muscle. Our spirited participation is critical to increase the effectiveness of the NOSB.

The NOSB and NOP must not forget that it is informed and passionate organic consumers who are the final arbiters. We decide what is, or is not, an acceptable ingredient, standard or practice.

Please visit Synthetic DHA and ARA for more information.

For questions about public policy, please contact Trudy Bialic at trudy.bialic@pccsea.com. For dietary or nutrition questions, contact our nutrition team at nutrition@pccsea.com.

More about: additives, baby products, DHA and ARA, NOP, NOSB, omega-3

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