Largest Organic Milk Bottler Accused of Misrepresenting Products

April 21st, 2011

Consumers Cautioned to Choose Organic Milk without Dubious, Illegal Ingredients

Cornucopia, Wis.—The Cornucopia Institute filed a formal request with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today, asking for an investigation into Dean Foods’ advertisements for its Horizon milk with Omega-3 DHA, alleging the nation’s largest dairy conglomerate with consumer fraud in misrepresenting the nutritional benefits of its products.

The dairy giant’s White Wave division, which markets the Horizon organic milk brand, recently launched a major nationwide marketing campaign that focuses on purported benefits to children’s brain development from drinking milk with added DHA oil, which is highly processed from fermented algae.

According to The Cornucopia Institute’s complaint, Dean Foods’ claims that their proprietary DHA oil “supports brain health” are not based on credible scientific evidence, and are therefore misleading consumers.

“DHA is one of many naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids, which scientists believe is beneficial when consumed through real, wholesome foods such as fish, flax seeds, nuts or grass fed milk and meat. But the DHA in Horizon’s milk comes from a highly processed oil, extracted from fermented algae,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit research group based in Wisconsin. “There is little scientific evidence to support the claim that adding these manufactured oils to foods is in any way beneficial to children’s cognitive development,” she adds.

The algal oil is manufactured and marketed by Martek Biosciences Corporation, based in Maryland. The Cornucopia Institute has charged that 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.

As reported in the Washington Post, a former administrator at the USDA’s National Organic Program, during the Bush administration, allowed these oils in organics after she was contacted by a corporate lobbyist who asked her to reinterpret the federal rules governing organic foods. Last year, the new director of the National Organic Program, which regulates organic foods on the US market, publicly stated that ingredients like Martek’s oils have been allowed in organic foods due to an “incorrect” interpretation of the federal organic standards.

Under current organic standards, food processors may add essential nutrients to organic foods if they are covered under the Food and Drug Administration’s official fortification rule. Essential nutrients that have been proven to benefit public health, like folic acid, which prevent birth defects, can legally be added to organic foods. But both the FDA and organic advocates advise against indiscriminate fortification of foods.

Earlier this week, on April 18, the National Organic Program made public a document by the Food and Drug Administration that clearly states that DHA oils are not “essential nutrients” and are not covered under the FDA’s fortification policy.

Cornucopia stated that its research indicates that 90% of all organic milk brands are supplied by ethical family-scale farmers and do not include any questionable additives.

“These highly processed, novel ingredients do not belong in organic foods, and it is important to remember that very few processors are adding them. Companies like Dean Foods/Horizon realize that these are valuable marketing tools, designed to create a competitive advantage, even if science does not back up their marketing claims,” states Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst with Cornucopia.

The FTC, the government agency charged by Congress for ensuring that companies advertise truthfully in the marketplace, has already sent a dozen warning letters to companies that use DHA algal oil as the basis for claims that their products benefit children’s brain development.

In addition, The Cornucopia Institute is asking the FTC to investigate Dr. Alan Greene, a prominent pediatrician (who maintains a popular website advising parents) for allegedly making false statements to promote Dean’s Horizon products. Cornucopia is also pursuing a separate professional ethics complaint against Dr. Greene.

In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority rejected a petition to allow a health claim related to DHA supplementation in milk for babies and toddlers and brain development, citing “insufficient” scientific data to support such a claim.

In its formal request to the FTC, the Cornucopia Institute lays out scientific data that shows that the addition of DHA to infant formula does not benefit babies’ cognitive development.

Few clinical trials have been conducted to assess the benefits of Martek’s oils for children’s brain development, and those that have been conducted have largely shown no benefits exist. For example, an experiment by Martek Biosciences Corporation on 175 children, published in Clinical Pediatrics, concluded: “For each test [of cognitive development], results indicated that changes from baseline to end of treatment were not statistically significantly different between the docosahexaenoic acid group and the placebo group.”

“Given that the FTC has already warned companies that they need convincing scientific evidence to substantiate their claims that DHA supplementation benefits brain development, it is disturbing to see a company flout these warnings and launch a major advertising campaign—centered around the very same claims that the FTC warned them against,” says Vallaeys.

MORE:

In 2009, the FDA formally requested certain companies to review their advertising and product packaging to ensure that they are not making any health-related claims for their products without competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the claims.

“That these unapproved DHA oils now serve as a marketing tool for Dean Foods/Horizon, without substantiation, only adds insult to injury for the ethical organic milk processors who respect the organic standards,” says Vallaeys.

Only two organic dairy processors are currently adding Martek’s DHA algal oil to its organic milk products—Horizon and Stremick’s. Organic Valley’s milk with omega-3 DHA includes fish oil, which has been approved for use in organics.

The vast majority of organic dairy products on market shelves are produced in accordance to the organic standards, which prohibit synthetic pesticides, genetically engineered and modified organisms, antibiotics and artificial growth hormones, etc.

A scorecard of organic dairy brands is available on Cornucopia’s website.

Dean Foods’ marketing campaign:

Dean Foods/White Wave makes misleading claims regarding its Horizon milk with added omega-3 DHA. Cartons state “DHA Omega-3 Supports Brain Health.” Print advertisements proclaim “Milk with DHA Omega-3 isn’t rocket science, but it is genius” and state “DHA Omega-3, a nutrient which supports healthy brain development”” and “it’s as delicious as it is smart.” Another print ad states, “a smart move for growing brains.”

Radio ads announce, “Kids are smart. Continue to help support their brain development with Horizon Organic DHA Omega-3 Milk.” Television ads show a child beating her grandfather at a chess game, and calls the DHA-supplemented milk a “smart move.”

The ads are run on Radio Disney, Disney FamilyFun magazine, disney.com, kaboose.com, disneyfamily.com and familyfun.com. Print ads appear in American Baby, Better Homes and Gardens, Everyday Food, Family Circle, Fitness, Martha Stewart Living, Scholastic Parent and Child and Working Mother.

Dr. Greene Misleads Organic Consumers

According to The Cornucopia Institute, Dean Foods’ online promotional materials are especially misleading given the presence of videos featuring Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician who endorses these products and gives consumers a false and misleading sense that the DHA oil has been medically proven to benefit health. Cornucopia asked the FTC to focus not only on Dean Foods/White Wave, but also include Dr. Alan Greene and his role in Dean Foods’ false and misleading advertising.

Dr. Greene’s statements in the video seem aimed at scaring parents of young children into buying products with added DHA. In the video, he wears a stethoscope and uses phrases like “my big concerns,” “it’s like the DHA is ripped away” and “you need to intentionally choose some way to get DHA into them,” which are extremely powerful when spoken by a prominent pediatrician.

“Parents of young children are generally concerned about their child’s proper development, and these videos seem to be designed to profit from these concerns—to sell unnecessary products to well-meaning parents,” says Kastel.

Dr. Greene.com is a popular website sponsored by Dean Foods WhiteWave division.

“We have met with Dr. Greene on a number of occasions in an effort to encourage him to evaluate his ethical approach to this topic,” stated Kastel. “But his zeal to promote DHA, without differentiating between natural and synthetic sources that might not actually be effective, was unwavering.”

Kastel added: “Dr. Greene’s response reminds me of the famous quote by Upton Sinclair, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’”

DHA oil linked to infant illness

Watch The Cornucopia Institute’s 4-minute video.

Hundreds of reports have been filed with the Food and Drug Administration from parents who noticed that their infants experienced serious diarrhea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal problems when consuming infant formula with Martek’s algal DHA and fungal ARA oils. A sampling of these reports clearly shows that the reactions disappear as soon as the infant is given equivalent formula without these novel ingredients.

Formula companies and Martek Biosciences Corporation have failed to perform adequate post-market surveillance to ensure the safety of their novel ingredients, despite a clear request from the Food and Drug Administration that additional safety studies be shared with the public.

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