USDA Proposal for Organic Food and Infant Formula

April 13, 2012

A USDA-proposed rule would clarify which synthetic ingredients can be added to organic food and infant formula.

In an effort to keep the market for organic products competitive with conventional products, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) allows for the use of certain non-organic and synthetic substances in products marketed as “organic.” A select few essential synthetic vitamins and minerals can fortify organic products. Processing aids, pesticides for crops, and medicines for livestock may also be allowed if approved for the NOP’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (“the National List”).

But with, still, other non-organic ingredients turning up in organic products, some critics worry that over-approval is threatening the very definition and consumer perception of the organic market.

Accessory nutrients, which the NOP says are “not specifically classified as a vitamin or mineral but found to promote optimal health,” have been allowed in organic products so long as they have been in compliance with FDA rules and regulations.

That’s about to change.

In April 2011, the NOP officially decided that accessory nutrients were making their way into organic products due to an “inaccurate reference to FDA’s fortification policy.” The NOP’s new proposal states that any nutrient that isn’t a vitamin or mineral can only be added to organic products if it is petitioned and approved for the National List, thus giving the NOP more control over what substances can be used in its market.

The proposed rule would affect a number of ingredients familiar to organic foods; most notably, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA’s naturally high concentrations in the human brain, eyes, and breast milk offer a strong argument for its use in organic foods and infant formula. The fatty acid made its way into certified-organic products back in 2006 and is now in an estimated 99.5% of infant formulas (organic and conventional).

DHA for infant formula is traditionally extracted with the chemical solvent hexane, which runs opposite the organic model.

Another glaring example is taurine, an essential amino acid for cats that can only be obtained from the diet. In nature, a cat would obtain this nutrient from prey, but today’s house cat can only receive adequate amounts of taurine as a chemically produced, technically non-organic substance in pet food. Food law actually requires taurine as an ingredient in all cat food.

DHA and taurine are examples of nutrients which, if not petitioned onto the National List, could bring ill consequence to organic consumers and pet owners. A petition for taurine is reportedly already on file, and Martek Biosciences (Columbia, MD), developer of life’sDHA algal DHA and subsidiary of DSM Nutritional Products (Basel, Switzerland), says a petition for its flagship DHA ingredient was recently supported by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), if only with a few caveats: it cannot be processed with hexane, and every other agricultural ingredient in the finished oil must be organic.

“The proposal will only affect DHA and ARA [arachidonic acid] for infant formula,” said Martek spokesperson Cassandra France-Kelley. “In the food and beverage space, there is a solvent-free extraction process for DHA. But the organism that is the source for our algal oil for infant formula-because of a number of biological reasons-is processed with hexane. For infant formula, there is no hexane alternative at this time; however, we are committed to finding a solution that will allow our infant formula customers to remain in compliance.”

Martek will likely have to invest in R&D towards a naturally extracted DHA for infant formula if it wants to retain a presence in that market. Other ingredients may have to undergo similar changes if they’re going to make the exclusive National List. Those denied or not petitioned in will be prohibited from inclusion in organic products.

So, what is the organic industry saying about this USDA-proposed rule? We caught up with the Organic Trade Association (OTA; Brattleboro, VT) to get its impression of the USDA’s newly proposed rule and what all of this means for the future of organic products regulation.

“OTA believes the proposed rule is clear and consistent with the intent of the NOSB and should eliminate misinterpretation and uncertainty,” said Gwendolyn Wyard, OTA associate director for organic standards and industry outreach. “This will allow organic operations to make confident business decisions, and the NOP to make consistent compliance decisions-which, in turn, should allow consumers to feel confident about the organic products they are purchasing.”

*If the new National List does not allow for the approval of taurine, organic pet food standards could give the nutrient a second chance. The Organic Trade Association expects a proposed rule for organic pet food in the very near future. The organization reports that, at a fall 2011 meeting, the National Organic Program announced its intentions to make such a proposal sometime this year.