Can an Organic Product Be Called Organic If It Contains DHA?

May 6, 2011

Due to a high level of industry response to the issue, the NOP has postponed further discussion until its meeting this fall.

The National Organic Program’s (NOP) National Organic Standards Board planned to meet in late April to review its policy for allowing added nutrients in products labeled as organic. While USDA’s fortification policy allows organic products to be enhanced with essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron, folate, and magnesium (see the full list in the sidebar below), it does not have a policy in place for the inclusion of other “accessory” nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA), sterols, or taurine.

Confusion stems from NOP’s misinterpretation of FDA fortification guidelines (contained in 21 CFR 104.20), back when NOP finalized its fortification requirements in 2007. At the time, NOP stated that DHA and ARA were allowed in organic products, citing FDA’s list of allowed nutrients in 21 CFR 104.20 and the fact that the ingredients are Generally Recognized as Safe. In actuality, however, FDA’s list of allowed nutrients for fortification does not include those “accessory” nutrients.

“The NOP recognizes that many certifiers and certified operations have made decisions based on the NOP’s incorrect interpretation of the FDA guidelines,” NOP stated in its proposal that requests the National Organic Standards Board reevaluate its recommendations for added nutrients and deliver guidance on the inclusion/exclusion of “accessory” nutrients.

 

The Arguments

Some, such as The Cornucopia Institute (Cornucopia, WI), have questioned whether ingredients such as DHA and other ingredients that may not be produced under organic conditions should be allowed in organic products. In late April, the Cornucopia Institute filed a formal request with the FTC to investigate Dean Foods’ Horizon organic milk fortified with algal DHA from ingredient supplier Martek Biosciences Corp. (Columbia, MD).

Beyond alleging that the milk’s claims for supporting brain development in children are unsupported by science, the complaint also questions whether the milk can be considered organic, if it contains algal DHA omega-3 oil.

The Institute stated, “food processors adding Martek’s algal oils to organic foods are in violation of the Organic Food Production Act and USDA organic standards, which prohibit unapproved non-organically produced ingredients in organic foods.”

“These highly processed, novel ingredients do not belong in organic foods, and it is important to remember that very few processors are adding them,” said Mark Kastel, a senior farm policy analyst for the Institute, in a press statement.

However, in April, prior to the NOP meeting, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC) issued its own opinion, stating that creating a policy barring the addition of ingredients such as omega-3 to organic foods would be detrimental to consumers.

“It would be unfortunate if consumers of organic foods were forced by federal policy to choose between the organic foods they desire or non-organic-enriched foods that provide the added nutrients they seek,” wrote CRN’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, Douglas MacKay, ND, in a letter to the National Organic Standards Board.

“An overly restrictive fortification policy may have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting organic businesses,” he added. “The Organic Trade Association estimates that fortified organic foods account for almost half-a-billion dollars in annual commodity ingredient and retail sales of certified-organic products….CRN 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.”

 

Looking Ahead

Not surprisingly, the issue has garnered a high level of industry response. For this reason, the NOP has postponed further discussion until its meeting this fall.

 

FDA’s Permitted Nutrients for Fortification According to 21 CFR 104.20

Protein
Calcium
Iron
Thiamin
Riboflavin
Niacin
Folate
Biotin
Pantothenic Acid
Phosphorus
Magnesium
Zinc
Iodine
Copper
Potassium
Vitamins A, C, D, E, B6, B12