In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was enacted by Congress with the purpose of assuring consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent, nationwide standard.

Prior to the passage of this federal law, private and State agencies were responsible for certifying organic practices. As a result, there was no uniform standard guaranteeing the consumer that “organic” meant the same thing from state to state, or even locally from certifier to certifier.

However, OFPA authorized the creation of the National Organic Program, a marketing program housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, requiring USDA to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products.

In addition, the statute mandated the implementation of a “National List” of materials which can and cannot be used in organic production, processing and handling in the United States.

Essentially, the list is a compilation of materials considered to be exceptions to the general rule within the organic industry that all organically grown and handled foods are produced with solely natural materials. Congress reasoned that this National List was necessary in order to account for the realities of organic production.

As such, certain synthetic materials are allowed to be incorporated into the production and handling of organic foods as long as the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an expert advisory panel, and the Secretary of Agriculture find that the substance is not harmful to human health or the environment, is necessary to production because of unavailability of natural products, and is consistent with organic ideals. For example, the list includes synthetic materials like baking powder that are not available organically but important for commercial food production.

According to a report last week, The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog, filed a complaint on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011, against Dean Foods alleging that a new product, Horizon Fat-Free Milk Plus DHA Omega-3, contains a synthetic nutritional oil that does not appear on the National List of approved synthetic substances for use in organic foods and constitutes what Mark Kastel, Co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, describes as “a willful and flagrant violation” of OFPA.

The product, just recently announced on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011 by Dean Foods, one of the leading food and beverage companies in the United States, under its Horizon Organic brand, is the latest addition to the company’s line of organic milk and bears the USDA organic seal.

In its announcement, the company boasted that the milk is fortified with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that has been shown in a number of scientific studies to be important for supporting the brain, heart and eyes at every stage of life.

However, Horizon’s new milk product has proven to be problematic amongst organic food advocates because it contains a synthetic, laboratory-produced version of DHA derived from microalgae species.

Charlotte Vallaeys, a Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute, explained, “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.”

During the Bush Administration, synthetic DHA was allowed to be included in organic products. Specifically, in 1995, NOSB issued a final recommendation regarding the use of nutrient supplementation in organic foods. The Board’s recommendations permitted the use of what it classified as “accessory nutrients,” or those nutrients not categorized as vitamins or minerals but found to promote health.

The Board included within the category of “accessory nutrients” substances such as  inositol, choline, camitine, taurine, and omega-3 fatty acids, like DHA. At the time, NOSB reasoned that “[w]ithout this inclusion, we believe we may be limiting ourselves given future nutritional discoveries.”

Ultimately, the NOP crafted a final rule published on December 21, 2000 that did not incorporate the term “accessory nutrients.” Instead, the rule permitted the inclusion of synthetic nutrient vitamins and minerals, in accordance with applicable regulations established by FDA.

Later, although the language of the final rule did not explicitly state that substances like synthetic omega-3 fatty acids could be added to organic food, the NOSB interpreted the rule to permit the addition of synthetic DHA.

However, in April 2010, after repeated appeals from organic advocacy groups, officials from NOP requested that NOSB reevaluate its approval process for various substances used in organic foods. The agency admitted that it had wrongly interpreted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules regarding food fortification with synthetic materials within the Code of Federal Regulations.

Although further action to ban synthetic substances has not been taken yet by USDA’s NOP, Vallaeys stated that “According to the USDA ruling, companies should be in the process of phasing out the use of these unapproved additives in organic foods.” Instead, Dean Foods seems to be taking the very opposite approach.

Surprised by Dean Foods’ announcement of a new product containing DHA, Vallaeys  expressed, “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,” she added.

Organic advocates are particularly concerned about the use of synthetic DHA because it is frequently made using hexane, a petrochemical solvent as well as a potential neurotoxin that can cause nerve damage by breathing air containing high concentrations of hexane or by ingesting the substance in large doses.

In addition, through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Cornucopia Institute, documents were obtained from FDA that seemed to provide evidence that the synthetic DHA oil, when added to infant formula, caused adverse reactions in infants including excessive gas, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Due to its potentially harmful effects to human health, Vallaeys concluded, “It is…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.” However, makers of DHA and other synthetically produced fatty acids disagree.

In a 2010 Washington Post report written after USDA released its ruling reversing its prior stance on the use of certain synthetic materials in organics, Cassie France-Kelly, spokeswoman for Martek Biosciences, a producer of plant-based laboratory fatty acids, told the Washington Post, “There is no organic alternative to these fatty acids and we firmly believe that DHA and ARA are important to health.”

Accordingly, in August 2010, Martek petitioned the USDA’s NOSB requesting that DHA and other synthetic fatty acids be allowed in organic food. Currently, however, the Board has yet to make a final decision on whether to approve Martek’s petition. The process could take several more months. Martek hopes their synthetic DHA will be approved by the Board before the phase out period for the substance is complete.

Moreover, in response to The Cornucopia Institute’s complaint, Horizon Organic stressed that they are “work[ing] with Martek and the USDA to follow the correct process to get the DHA approved as an accepted additive to organic milk.” The company also asserts that, as an organic food provider, they support regulations that will add to the organic label.

Unconvinced by Horizon’s assertions, The Cornucopia Institute is hoping that USDA, at a minimum, sends a cease-and-desist letter to the Dean Foods company that would prevent Horizon from introducing the milk products into the market in order to protect both the public and the integrity of the organic label.

In support of Cornucopia’s recent complaint, Kastel urged, “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.”

Horizon Organic maintains that it is willing to have an open dialogue about the issue.