Nation’s Largest Corporate Dairy Violates USDA Ruling, Acts as if it’s above the Law

CORNUCOPIA, Wis.   A prominent organic industry watchdog filed a formal legal complaint today alleging that a newly introduced product, by the giant dairy conglomerate Dean Foods, includes a synthetic nutritional oil that is prohibited in organics.  The product, Horizon Fat-Free Milk Plus DHA Omega-3, bears the USDA organic seal despite a ruling in 2010 by the USDA that the proprietary DHA oil, an ingredient derived from algae, is not legal in organic production.

“This is a willful and flagrant violation of the law governing organic foods,” states Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.

Federal law strictly prohibits synthetic additives in organic foods unless the additive appears on the USDA’s National Organic Program’s list of allowed substances.  Ingredients are included on this list only after careful review and approval by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an expert advisory panel, and the Secretary of Agriculture.

Synthetic materials on the list include benign substances like baking powder that are not available organically but important for commercial food production.

“The specific type of laboratory-produced DHA oil that Horizon adds to its milk has never been reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board or approved by the USDA,” explains Charlotte Vallaeys, a Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute.

Due to its past unauthorized use, federal regulators recently issued a statement confirming that adding these synthetic oils violates the Organic Foods Production Act.  “It is therefore absolutely baffling that Dean Foods would introduce a product with synthetic DHA and have the audacity to label it organic, and it’s even more disturbing that their certifier would allow this,” Vallaeys added.

In addition to Dean Foods, a few other food processors and several infant formula manufacturers have included the synthetic additive, manufactured by Martek Biosciences Corporation, in organic products, despite their lack of approval.

From documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Cornucopia discovered that the USDA, under the Bush Administration, had informally allowed the additives in organic foods after a backroom deal with corporate lobbyists.

After numerous appeals by The Cornucopia Institute, and an investigative article in the Washington Post that exposed corruption under the previous administration, new leadership at the USDA’s National Organic Program publicly acknowledged, in April 2010, that the Bush administration had misinterpreted federal rules when allowing Martek’s DHA algal oil in organics.

“According to the USDA ruling, companies should be in the process of phasing out the use of these unapproved additives in organic foods,” states Vallaeys.  “The last thing we expected was to see a marketer actually introduce a new product with these unapproved synthetic substances.  With this move, Dean Foods seems to be stating that they do not care about organic integrity, and couldn’t care less about complying with the organic law.”

In August 2010, with the damaging coverage in the Washington Post, and the determination of its illegality by the USDA, Martek Biosciences finally petitioned the oils for approval in organic foods.  The National Organic Standards Board, which reviews petitions and advises the USDA’s National Organic Program on these matters, has yet to rule on Martek’s request.

Due to the ongoing controversy, and questions about the safety and efficacy of Martek’s nutritional ingredients, approval of their petition by the NOSB is far from certain.

Martek produces its patented DHA additives from microalgae species that have never previously been part of the human diet, and that are fermented in a medium including corn syrup that is likely genetically engineered (genetic engineering is banned in organics).

According to Martek’s petition, the processing of their algal DHA additives includes hydrolysis with enzymes, extraction with petrochemical solvents, and other “non-organic processing aids” such as “food acids.” Petrochemical solvents, including the neurotoxic compound hexane, are also explicitly banned in organic production.

Documents obtained from the Food and Drug Administration lead some researchers and healthcare providers to believe that these synthetic ingredients, when added to infant formula, cause serious adverse reactions in some infants, including virulent diarrhea and vomiting, sometimes resulting in hospitalization.

“When they buy organic, consumers expect wholesome, real foods without synthetic ingredients or manufactured with questionable processing aids,” states Vallaeys.  “Real organic milk contains healthy fatty acids.  It makes no sense to replace them with synthetic oil that was developed in a laboratory and produced in a factory.”

Dean Foods’ Horizon brand is already held in low esteem by many in the organic industry because of its dependence on industrial-scale “factory farms” that have historically confined their cattle rather than promoting fresh pasture intake.  Research shows that pasturing cows leads to milk that is naturally higher in omega-3 fatty acids.

A study conducted by The Milkweed, a dairy industry newspaper, showed that Horizon brand milk tested lower in certain nutrients, including beneficial fatty acids, than almost all of its primary marketplace competitors.

In its previously published landmark report on infant formula, The Cornucopia Institute questioned claims, popular in advertising, that Martek’s additives benefit brain and eye health for infants and children.  Two scientific review studies substantiated Cornucopia’s findings on the effects of DHA supplementation, revealing that only one of 18 included peer-reviewed scientific studies showed an advantage to development.  Both meta-analysis studies concluded that DHA does not benefit cognitive and visual development in infants.

An additional study examining DHA effects on toddler development, applicable to Horizon’s new supplemented milk, found no statistically significant results on tests of mental prowess between a group of children given DHA supplements and a control group.  The study was funded by Martek itself, and published in Clinical Pediatrics.

Yet Dean Foods suggests, in its marketing materials, that its DHA-supplemented milk benefits children’s brain health.  “Even if this DHA oil were legal for inclusion in organic products, there is virtually no research, other than a small minority of industry-funded studies, to indicate that Martek’s oil benefits children’s development,” Kastel added.  “This is a marketing gimmick, plain and simple.”

Cornucopia formally asked the USDA to take immediate action on this issue to protect the public and the integrity of the organic label.

“It appears that companies like Dean Foods and Martek think they are above the law,” states Kastel.  “It’s time for the USDA to show that the organic regulations and standards are not a matter of interpretation by powerful corporations, but mean something and must be followed by everyone in the organic community.”



Dean Foods’ Horizon milk product line is certified organic by Quality Assurance International (QAI), San Diego, California.  Although implicated in a number of other improper decisions, the accredited certifier has yet to be sanctioned by the USDA.  QAI is the largest certifier serving corporate agribusinesses that have invested in organics.

Dr. Alan Greene
In its product launch, Dean Foods’ Horizon spokesman, Dr. Alan Greene, stated, “Organic milk fortified with DHA is a great option for families looking to incorporate nutritious products in their diets with the proven benefits of DHA, including those for heart, brain and eye health,” despite the obvious lack of scientific evidence to back up his statement.  [Emphasis added]

“We have had it with The Good Doctor,” said Cornucopia’s Kastel.

Greene, formerly a highly-paid spokesperson for Horizon’s key competitor, Organic Valley, initially angered organic proponents when he endorsed Dean Foods’ first non-organic Horizon products — milk and yogurt targeted to toddlers (prior to these products, Horizon had been an exclusively organic label).

“At the time, we felt it was unconscionable for someone who had developed his personal brand name, Dr. Greene, by promoting organics, to recommend dairy products containing conventional fruits and vegetables that have been proven to have some of the highest levels of pesticide residue contamination,” Kastel added.  “These products were targeted to developing children, who are most vulnerable to the deleterious impacts of pesticide residues.  It was evidence that Dr. Greene was willing to sell his endorsement to the highest bidder, regardless of its virtues.”

Greene, author of Feeding Baby Green, and the proprietor of a popular advertising-supported pediatrics website, also rankled some organic farmers when he appeared, in 2009, as the keynote speaker at the country’s largest organic confab, the Upper Midwest Organic Farmers Conference in Wisconsin.  When he made his speech before organic stakeholders, Greene was working as an undisclosed paid spokesperson for Dean/Horizon, a company embroiled in controversy for allegedly operating illegal factory farms, milking thousands of cows each.

“What really upset some people is that Greene spoke without declaring his financial relationship with Dean, a $12 billion dairy goliath, long known as a bad actor in the conventional and organic dairy communities,” Kastel said.

The Cornucopia Institute stated it is preparing an ethics complaint against Greene for misrepresenting the body of literature that, the Institute claims, clearly lacks any scientific basis for the marketing claims he is helping his corporate benefactor articulate in the marketplace.

“This kind of questionable behavior, and overt conflicts of interest, has been condemned in the pharmaceutical industry when physicians partner with companies for promotions,” Kastel stated.  “The organic industry is successful because it was built by farmers and consumers partnering in an ethical, values-based approach to food production.  We will not tolerate these antics by someone, by virtue of a medical degree, looking to cash in on the goodwill and trust of the organic consumer.”

Organic Trade Association

In addition to the ethical concerns about Dr. Greene’s position as a spokesperson for Dean/Horizon, Cornucopia is calling on the Organic Trade Association (OTA) to remove Dean Foods’ representative, Ms. Kelly Shea, who is Dean’s Vice President of Industry Relations and Organic Stewardship, from the OTA board of directors.

“For too long the OTA, an organic industry trade and lobby group, has looked the other way when their powerful members have willfully violated federal law,” Kastel attested.  “We call on them now to respond forcefully to the apparent willful violations of law by Dean Foods by disassociating themselves with the company.”

Subsequent to a 2007 USDA finding that Aurora Dairy, another organic factory farm operator, which supplies private-label milk to major supermarket chains such as Wal-Mart and Costco, had “willfully” violated 14 tenets of the organic law, Aurora’s president Mark Retzloff was elected as chairman of the OTA’s research arm, The Organic Center.

The Cornucopia Institute said in its letter, “It’s time that the Organic Trade Association recognizes its responsibility to take action against its membership when they jeopardize the reputation and integrity of the organic label.”

Stay Engaged

Sign up for The Cornucopia Institute’s eNews and action alerts to stay informed about organic food and farm issues.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.