Dean Foods’ organic label, Horizon, claims that “the USDA has not banned the use of plant-based DHA.”  However, according to federal law, any ingredient or additive that is not produced according to organic standards must be formally petitioned, reviewed and accepted before it can be added to organic foods.

The federal organic standards provide a list of non-organic ingredients and additives that have been approved for use in organic foods, and the algal DHA oil used in Horizon’s milk does not appear on this list.

In August 2010, the company that produces Horizon’s DHA oil (Martek Biosciences Corporation) submitted a formal petition to the USDA, to begin the process of legally allowing their DHA oil in organic food.  The USDA has not yet approved their petition.

And it is questionable whether the USDA’s advisory panel, The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), will approve a substance that is believed to cause health problems in children and for which there is no scientific consensus and very little evidence regarding health or developmental benefits.

To argue, as Dean/Horizon does, that an additive is allowed in organic food because “the USDA has not banned [it]” is preposterous.  The USDA does not ban individual additives from organic foods, it bans all non-organic additives unless they have been petitioned, reviewed and approved.  According to federal law and regulations, algal DHA in Horizon milk is most certainly illegal.

Horizon would like its consumers to believe that the USDA is “asking itself” whether it should “require a formal petition process.”  In reality, the USDA made a public statement that it will, from now on, follow the letter of the law—and the law already requires a formal petition process for any additive that has not yet been approved.

An official memorandum by the USDA states that its intention is to correct a past legally unjustifiable decision, by the former director of the USDA’s organic program, who consulted with industry lobbyists instead of following the formal approval process.

Horizon also makes algal DHA sound innocent and innocuous—referring to it as “plant-based DHA” as if it were grown in organic soil and harvested like any other organic plant crop.  Yet the algae in Horizon’s milk are not grown in fertile organic soil, but rather developed in the laboratory, manufactured in a factory and fermented in a medium that includes corn syrup, which is likely genetically engineered.

They have repeatedly claimed that their algae itself is not genetically engineered (Cornucopia had never claimed that it was) but they have completely ignored the question of whether the medium in which it is fermented is genetically engineered (genetic engineering is strictly banned in organic production).

Horizon claims that “The USDA has not questioned the safety of algal DHA oil.”  Since algal DHA oil was added to organic food without undergoing the formal petition and approval process, the USDA has not had a chance to review the issue of the safety of algal DHA oil.  When they do review algal DHA, documented questions of safety will certainly be carefully reviewed.

The FDA, on the other hand, has reviewed algal DHA oil and two senior scientists raised the following safety concerns in official FDA documents:  “studies have reported adverse events and other morbidities including diarrhea, flatulence, jaundice, and apnea in infants fed [DHA].”

Documents obtained from the FDA through a Freedom of Information Act request furthermore reveal that hundreds of parents of infants have reported health concerns with algal DHA in infant formula.  While the FDA specifically requested post-market surveillance regarding the safety of algal DHA oil, Martek has not, according to the FDA, shared a single post-market surveillance report with the agency.

Horizon claims:  “The DHA we use has been scientifically proven to help with children’s eye and brain development.”  To support this claim, Horizon refers consumers to its website, where it cites three scientific articles, of which only one is an actual clinical trial.  No responsible scientist or marketer would ever claim that anything has been “scientifically proven” based on results of one clinical trial.

Instead, responsible scientists turn to independent reviews of all the data that has been collected to date—taking into account all studies that have been performed, not just the one that provided the corporation’s desired outcome.

Two meta-analysis studies, peer-reviewed and published in respected academic journals, collectively reviewed the results of 18 clinical trials.  They both concluded that there are no benefits to infants from adding DHA to formula.  Dr. Simmer, the author of one of the independent meta-analysis studies, wrote:  “[DHA and ARA] had no proven benefit regarding vision, cognition, or physical growth.”  Dr. Beyerlein, primary author of the second meta-analysis study, concluded that there is an “absence of any detectable benefit.”

Few clinical trials have been performed to determine whether older children benefit from DHA supplementation.  One trial, funded by Martek, hoped to find benefits, which would help them market their additives.  The trial found no differences on tests of cognitive development between a group of children given algal DHA supplements and a control group.  Of course, since this trial did not find benefits to children’s health from DHA supplementation, the study is never mentioned on Horizon’s website.

For Dean/Horizon to claim that these oils are “scientifically proven to help with brain and eye development” is scientifically inaccurate and therefore amounts to false advertising (The Cornucopia Institute is researching an additional complaint to the Federal Trade Commission concerning this issue).

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