Industry Watchdog / Washington Post Investigation Brings Down Old Leadership
Washington, DC: In a strong departure from Bush-era policy, the USDA’s National Organic Program released a memo today banning synthetic “accessory nutrients” — ending a scandal that brought down its former organic leadership.
At issue were some of the nation’s leading manufacturers of infant formula that had been illegally adding synthetic forms of omega-3 and omega-6 oils to their organic products after a sweetheart deal between a powerful industry lobbyist and Dr. Barbara Robinson, the former head of the USDA’s organic program—exposed by a 2009 investigative report in the Washington Post.
Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), by The Cornucopia Institute and shared with the Washington Post, indicated that Robinson, after meeting with Jay Friedman, a lawyer and lobbyist with the powerful Washington law firm of Covington Burling, rescinded a ruling made by USDA career civil servants who found the inclusion of synthetic oils in organic infant formula to be illegal.
“Justice prevailed in this matter but it took a change in the administration in Washington to make this happen,” said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute.
Problems and improprieties at the National Organic Program, during the Bush administration, were also profiled in a recently released audit from the USDA’s Inspector General’s office.
Cornucopia, an organic industry watchdog, first investigated the use of these “novel” nutritional oils, derived from soil fungus and algae, in infant formula, because they are extracted using a neurotoxic chemical, hexane, which is explicitly banned in organic production. “We couldn’t understand why the USDA was allowing this to happen,” Kastel said.
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, as part of the 1990 farm bill, charging the USDA with defending the interests of ethical industry participants and protecting organic consumers against fraud.
Cornucopia researchers were shocked when they started investigating the DHA/ARA oils, manufactured by Martek Biosciences Corporation, Columbia, MD, and found they were implicated by parents and healthcare professionals in severe and chronic health problems in infants around the country.
“Organics should be the last bastion of pure, natural and unadulterated food for consumers,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, lead author of Cornucopia’s report, Replacing Mother — Imitating Human Breast Milk in the Laboratory: <http://www.cornucopia.org/>
Through a separate FOIA request to the FDA, Cornucopia learned that there was an apparent correlation between the use of Martek’s nutritional oils and severe gastrointestinal problems sometimes resulting in highly-invasive testing procedures and hospitalizations.
“Based on FDA adverse reaction reports, we discovered that many parents, physicians and health care practitioners found that chronic problems with infants, often resulting in ‘failure to thrive,’ acute dehydration (caused by dangerous diarrhea/vomiting) and severe emotional stress on the babies and their families, were often immediately resolved when switching to formula without DHA/ARA supplementation,” stated Vallaeys.
After learning about the health problems, Cornucopia immediately stepped up its legal efforts at the USDA to remove Martek’s oils not only from organic infant formula, but also from organic baby food and organic milk manufactured by the nation’s leading brand, Horizon, owned by the dairy giant Dean Foods.
“It’s concerning enough that these Martek oils are being widely introduced in the marketplace, in both organic and conventional products, but there is no authoritative research that suggests they actually benefit childrens development, as is claimed by the industry,” said Marsha Walker, RN, IBCLC, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy.
Infant formula manufacturers like Enfamil (Mead Johnson) promote their products as being “our closest formula to breast milk,” and research indicates such advertisements might have discouraged some women from breastfeeding, which is universally recognized as being superior to formula in numerous ways, including for the health and development of babies.
“This seems to be a crass marketing gimmick, using our children as guinea pigs to enhance the bottom line at the major pharmaceutical companies that manufacture infant formula,” lamented Kastel. “The fact that this material is being illegally added to certified organic formula is highly repugnant and left mothers, who could not breastfeed for whatever reason, with few alternatives in the marketplace.”
Over the past few years, infant formula manufacturers have raised their prices after adding Martek oils to their products. With the exception of some prescription formulas, available with approval from pediatricians, only one over-the-counter formula is available without synthetic DHA/ARA, Baby’s Only, an organic product manufactured by Nature’s One in Columbus, Ohio.
“After today’s official announcement by the USDA, all other organic formula manufacturers will need to remove Martek’s oils from their products,” Cornucopia’s Vallaeys stated.
In the meantime, The Cornucopia Institute also has filed petitions with the FDA requesting that their Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) designation for the Martek oils be revoked.
“When Martek’s additives were originally granted GRAS status, it was with extreme reservations on the part of the FDA review panel because of adverse reactions to these oils” said Valleys. “When we reviewed FOIA documents, we were astonished to find that none of the infant formula manufacturers had complied with the FDA’s request to monitor adverse reactions and perform post-market surveillance of these materials.”
Like baking soda or any other synthetic ingredient that manufacturers would like to use in organic products, Martek and the infant formula manufacturers who would like to use synthetic DHA/ARA oils will now be allowed to petition the National Organic Standards Board for a safety review. Cornucopia projects an aggressive lobbying fight with public interest groups and powerful manufacturers once again squaring off.
“We have to say we are continuing to be impressed by the ethical turnaround at the USDA, in their oversight of the organic industry, since the new administration took control in Washington and Secretary Vilsack promised members of the organic community that he would appoint leadership who ‘shares our values,” Kastel affirmed.
According to The Cornucopia Institute, widely recognized as one of the industry’s most aggressive independent watchdogs, organic consumers have every reason to feel more confident every day in the integrity of the USDA organic label.
Link to this news release at: http://www.cornucopia.org/2010/04/new-administration-at-usda-steps-up-to-end-organic-corruption/
USDA memorandum reversing previous position on nutrient vitamins and minerals in organic foods, available upon request: http://www.cornucopia.org/NOP%20Action%20Memo%20April%202010.pdf
Link to The Cornucopia Institute report, and other background documents: Replacing Mother — Imitating Human Breast Milk in the Laboratory: http://www.cornucopia.org/2008/01/replacing-mother-infant-formula-report/
USDA audit from Office of Inspector General (OIG) on systemic problems at National Organic Program during the Bush administration and during the tenure of Dr. Barbara Robinson:
An excerpt of reports from FDA documents, and direct testimony, from the soon to be released update of Cornucopia’s report on DHA/ARA in infant formula:
Holly Schneider, from Taylor, Michigan, put her infant son to sleep every night hooked up to a breathing monitor, as recommended by his pediatrician, in case his constant vomiting should choke him during sleep.
After trying every type and brand of formula, her son’s symptoms stopped almost immediately, at six and a half months of age, after Holly accidentally bought formula without DHA and ARA.
Holly remembers the first months of her son’s life: “He had explosive diarrhea, projectile vomiting, dehydration, excessive gas, weight loss, cried all the time and couldn’t sleep. At every feeding, he would begin squirming and screaming halfway through the bottle, pulling up his legs, and I could hear his stomach churning.” When it was time for her son to feed again, the process would start all over.
Along with hundreds of other mothers and fathers who watched the incredible transformation when they gave their baby formula without DHA and ARA additives, Karen and Holly have alerted the FDA. They believe that the synthetic DHA and ARA additives are the cause of their baby’s suffering, and have shared their stories with the FDA’s Medwatch program, which allows consumers and health professionals to officially send adverse reaction reports to the agency.
Some parents simply state the facts—“Child was given Enfamil with DHA and ARA, developed severe diarrhea. When switched to Enfamil without DHA and ARA, did fine”—states one report.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit. Their web page can be viewed at http://www.cornucopia.org <http://www.cornucopia.org/> .