Organic Watchdog Files Formal Legal Complaint with USDA
CORNUCOPIA, WI: The Cornucopia Institute, a not-for-profit policy research organization based in Wisconsin, filed a formal legal complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) against several infant formula manufacturers that are adding two synthetic preservatives to certified organic infant formula.
— Image courtesy of Imbuga
The Organic Foods Production Act, passed by Congress in 1990, explicitly bans synthetic preservatives in organic food.
“This is another blatant violation of the federal law governing organics by multi-billion dollar corporations that apparently think they can get away with anything,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute.
The preservatives are beta carotene and ascorbyl palmitate, synthetics that are added to infant formula to prevent the oxidation and rancidity of ingredients such as the controversial patented supplements DHA and ARA, manufactured by Martek Biosciences Corporation (Royal DSM) and marketed as Life’sDHA®.
“This is not the first time that the pharmaceutical companies and agribusinesses, that manufacture infant formula, have quietly added to organic formula the same synthetic ingredients that they use in their conventional versions without first seeking the legally required approval for use in organics,” says Vallaeys.
According to The Cornucopia Institute, there have been more than a dozen unapproved synthetic ingredients that have been added to organic infant formula over the past five years. The public interest group has filed numerous legal complaints with the USDA, asking for removal of unapproved synthetic ingredients like the DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oils, manufactured by Martek, which was recently acquired by the Dutch conglomerate Royal DSM.
While the USDA has admitted publicly that these synthetics were added to organics due to an erroneous interpretation by previous USDA leadership, the agency, after being pressured by industry, has refused to take enforcement action and pull the suspect products from store shelves.
The Martek DHA and ARA oils, labeled on infant formula as “c. cohnii oil” and “m. alpina oil,” have been controversial since the preponderance of scientific published research concluded that they do not benefit infant development. “These ingredients, which now appear to require additional synthetics as preservatives, amount to a gimmicky and risky marketing ploy,” added Vallaeys.
When formula with Martek’s DHA and ARA first came on the market, the FDA received numerous adverse reaction reports from parents and healthcare providers who noted serious gastrointestinal symptoms in babies who had previously tolerated formula without the Martek DHA and ARA oils.
Synthetic beta carotene and ascorbyl palmitate, according to the International Formula Council (the industry’s trade-lobby group), contribute no nutritional value to infant formula, but rather serve to prevent oxidation and rancidity.
Organic standards require that a synthetic ingredient cannot qualify for use in organic foods if its primary purpose is as a preservative. The International Formula Council, which is now petitioning the USDA to legalize the use of these synthetic materials in organics, never uses the word “preservative” to describe synthetic beta carotene and ascorbyl palmitate. They instead use terms like “antioxidant” to “prevent undesirable oxidation” and “prevent rancidity” in “powder formulations containing DHA and ARA.”
The federal organic standards also require that synthetics be allowed in organic foods only if they are deemed essential.
“The only reason why these two synthetic preservatives are added to infant formula is to prevent the rancidity of some of the other synthetic ingredients that are not essential and have also been added illegally,” says Vallaeys. “This is a slippery slope, and we urge the USDA to take appropriate enforcement action and put an end to the practice of first adding synthetic additives to organic food, including infant formula, and then seeking subsequent approval.”
In its complaint, Cornucopia also asked the USDA to investigate the formula manufacturers’ organic certifying agent, Quality Assurance International (QAI). QAI is one of the largest organic certifying agents, and has come under fire in the past for certifying organic livestock operations that failed to meet the organic standards for animal welfare and outdoor access. QAI has also allowed its clients to add a number of other allegedly illegal synthetic ingredients to organic food and livestock feed.
The Cornucopia Institute refers to QAI as, “the corporate certifier of convenience.”
“Consumers should be able to trust that the organic label represents foods that are free from unnecessary synthetic ingredients, and they rely on third-party certification by USDA-accredited certifying agents,” says Mark Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute.
“But that system breaks down when certifiers like QAI allow their clients to add unreviewed and unapproved synthetic ingredients and when the USDA, when faced with industry pressure, fails to carry out its enforcement duties.”
A buyer’s guide to avoiding organic foods with DSM/Martek’s DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil, including foods aimed at adults and children, like Horizon milk (manufactured by Dean Foods), is available on The Cornucopia Institute’s website.
The Cornucopia Institute named the following brands of organic infant formula in its complaint to the USDA: Earth’s Best, Similac Organic, Vermont Organics, Bright Beginnings and Parent’s Choice (sold by Walmart).
Similac Organic is produced by Abbott Laboratories, a $30 billion pharmaceutical corporation. The other brands are produced by PBM Nutritionals, owned by Perrigo, a $2 billion dollar pharmaceutical corporation.
The only commercially available baby formula available in US stores that does not contain these synthetic preservatives is Baby’s Only Organic, manufactured by Nature’s One. Baby’s Only Organic is certified organic by OneCert.
A comprehensive report, Replacing Mother—Imitating Human Breast Milk in the Laboratory, is also available on the Cornucopia site.