Organic body to review use of ARA, DHA in baby food

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 29th April 2010

The US is to review the use of two synthetic additives in organic baby food and infant formula after a fresh look at the nutrients allowed in organic processed food.

The National Organic Program, which oversees the marketing and labelling of organic food in the US, said new information had brought to light that it had erred in 2006 when it had allowed the use of ARA and DHA in infant formula.

After talks with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Organic Program said it had been “determined” that there had been “an incorrect interpretation” of regulations covering the use of “accessory nutrients” like ARA and DHA.

“Consumers have the right to the best information about what is included in products carrying USDA’s Organic seal, and producers need clearly defined standards and processes in order to ensure that they can meet regulatory requirements and satisfy market demand for organic food,” said Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program. “Today’s (27 April) announcement will strengthen the National Organic Program by providing greater confidence for consumers and better information and procedures for producers.”

Ingredients group Martek Biosciences Corp. has stood by the science behind its DHA and ARA nutrients.

Manufacturers like Martek have 60 days to issue comment before the NOP draws up fresh guidance that “aligns” with the FDA’s interpretation of the Nutritional Guidelines for Foods. The draft guidance will provide a transition time for businesses to reformulate products to comply with the regulations.

Cornucopia, an organic industry watchdog, praised the announcement but said it took a change in administration in Washington to make it happen.

Cornucopia said it had first investigated the use of the “novel” nutritional oils ARA and DHA, 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”.

Charlotte Vallaeys, lead author of a Cornucopia report on infant formula, said that through a request to the FDA, the watchdog had learned that there was an apparent correlation between the use of the oils and severe gastrointestinal problems.

“Organics should be the last bastion of pure, natural and unadulterated food for consumers,” said Vallaeys.

“Based on FDA adverse reaction reports, we discovered that many parents, physicians and healthcare 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,” Vallaeys said.

Speaking to just-food, a Martek spokesperson denied ARA and DHA had been prohibited and insisted the NOP was reviewing their use ahead of a possible re-evaluation of whether the nutrients should be included in the national list.

The spokesperson admitted it was “possible” the nutrients could be banned from use in organic food but she insisted the purported health benefits of ARA and DHA – including brain, heart and eye health – were real.

The spokesperson acknowledged that the NOP review may result in companies like Martek having to re-apply to use ARA and DHA in organic food but added: “There is no reason to believe that they won’t be accepted for use in organic food,” the spokesperson added.

A spokesman for the NOP denied the nutrients had been banned and were under review. “We’re not saying that they are unhealthy. We’re just working out if they are allowable in organic products. Our top priority is to ensure the integrity of organically certified commodities and products,” the spokesman said.

“The draft guidance will be issued later this summer. After a 60-day comment period the National Organic Program (NOP) will review before issuing final comments. The NOP plans to provide adequate time to businesses to change their formulations and to petition the National Organic Standards Board in order to have an orderly transition to the clarification.”

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