Organic Consumers Association

Tell the USDA National Organic Program You Want Nutrition from Organic Food, Not Synthetic Vitamins!

Consumers rightly choose USDA Organic products for a variety of reasons, including their nutritional value.

But thanks to the USDA National Organic Program’s (NOP) failure to close the illegal loophole it created for synthetic nutrients, vitamins and minerals, some of the vitamins and nutrients in organic food come from synthetic sources, including genetically modified microorganisms.

TAKE ACTION: Tell the USDA National Organic Program You: We want nutrients from organic food, not synthetic vitamins!

A Synthetic Soup of Unnatural Nutrients

One of the worst examples of synthetic ingredients allowed in USDA organic products is infant formula. This is the list of ingredients found in USDA certified organic Earth’s Best infant formula sold at Whole Foods Market:

Crypthecodinium Cohnii Oil (Docosahexaenoic Acid [DHA]), Mortierella Alpina Oil (Arachidonic Acid [ARA]), Calcium Chloride, Calcium Hydroxide, Cupric Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Manganese Sulfate, Potassium Bicarbonate, Potassium Chloride, Potassium Hydroxide, Potassium Iodide, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Selenite, Zinc Sulfate, Taurine, Ascorbic Acid, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Beta-Carotene, Biotin, Calcium Pantothenate, Choline Chloride, Cyanocobalamin, Folic Acid, Inositol, Mixed Tocopherol Concentrate, Niacinamide, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Thiamin Hydrochloride, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D (Cholecalciferol), Vitamin E (Dl-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate), Vitamin K (Phytonadione), Adenosine-5'-Monophosphate, Cytidine-5'-Monophosphate, Disodium Guanosine-5'-Monophosphate, Disodium Inosine-5'-Monophosphate, Disodium Uridine-5'-Monophosphate.

The list was so shocking to Whole Foods Market shoppers that they sued the retailer claiming that the sale of this product with “30 artificial ingredients” violated its promise of “nothing artificial.”

While there are some notable differences among certified organic infant formulas (the Cornucopia Institute has a great guide to comparing organic infant formula ingredients), this list of long, barely pronounceable ingredients doesn’t vary much from one organic infant formula to the next.

Infant formula is the worst offender, but if you start reading your labels closely, you’ll notice that many certified organic foods contain artificial nutrients.

How did synthetic nutrients get in our organic food?

The Organic Food Production Act (OPFA), and the regulations that implement it, are themselves very strong. But when a large company violates those regulations, the response from Congress and the USDA NOP typically has been to change the law and regulations to match company’s non-compliance—instead of enforcing the law.

The most striking example of this occurred in 2005, when the Organic Trade Association went to Congress to overturn a federal court ruling in favor of organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey.

Harvey sued the USDA, arguing that the original version of OFPA limited the National List of exemptions for non-organic ingredients to non-organics that were also non-synthetic. He told the court that Congress had not intended to allow synthetic ingredients in products certified as organic.

The court agreed, ruling that that synthetic ingredients were being illegally approved for use in organic foods.

But then, along came the Organic Trade Association (OTA), representing many of the large organic companies who wanted to continue using synthetic ingredients. The OTA convinced Congress to in effect reverse the ruling in Harvey’s favor, by passing a law that amended OFPA. Before the 2005 amendments, OFPA prohibited organic food companies from adding "any synthetic ingredient during ... processing." Congress changed OFPA so that it prohibits only the addition of "any synthetic ingredient not appearing on the National List during processing."

This restored the pre-Harvey-lawsuit status quo, where companies could petition the 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory committee that recommends to the USDA NOP what can and can’t be included in organic. If a petition for a synthetic ingredient won a two-thirds vote from the NOSB advisory committee, the ingredient would be added to the National List of exemptions.

This is bad enough. What makes it worse is that members of the OTA, and synthetic ingredients manufacturers seeking access to organic products, have resisted even going through this approval process and have instead fought for loopholes for whole categories of synthetic ingredients.

Makers of synthetic nutrients, led by Martek (now DSM), have been the most aggressive. Martek manufactures DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) and ARA (Arachidonic Acid), two synthetic nutrients used in hundreds of organic food products, including infant formula, baby food, dairy products and more. Both nutrients have been linked to severe gastrointestinal distress, prolonged periods of vomiting and painful bloating.

In 2006, National Organic Program staff told Martek that DHA and ARA were synthetic and weren’t allowed in organic. Martek's lawyer got the decision reversed by Bush Administration NOP director Barbara Robinson. He explained to the Washington Post, "I called Robinson up, I wrote an e-mail. It was a simple matter."

Under the Obama Administration, the USDA National Organic Program sought to rectify the illegal situation. It required Martek to present a formal petition to the National Organic Standards Board. In 2011, the NOSB voted to add DHA and ARA to the National List of non-organic materials allowed in organic.

So much for overturning the Bush Administration’s decision.

At an NOSB meeting, the OCA argued that DHA and ARA were excluded from organic because they were genetically modified. DHA and ARA are the products of mutated microorganisms. The patents for DHA and ARA use mutagenesis interchangeably with recombinant DNA techniques of genetic engineering.

Martek argued that DHA and ARA were allowed because they were created through a technique used in classical breeding. NOSB members asked NOP director Miles McEvoy to settle the issue. He told them he didn’t know if DHA and ARA were created using a technique of genetic modification that is excluded from organic. The NOSB ultimately voted to add DHA and ARA to the National List on the assumption that they weren’t the product of an excluded method (genetic engineering).

The USDA National Organic Program still hasn’t answered the question of whether DHA and ARA are genetically modified, and it still hasn’t officially approved DHA and ARA’s use by changing the organic regulations to add them to the National List.

DHA and ARA aren’t unique. Many synthetic nutrients used in organic are the products of genetic modification. And they come with health risks. Synthetic nutrients can disrupt normal metabolic functions with devastating side effects. Synthetic vitamin E, for instance, is linked to prostate cancer.

The USDA National Organic Program should commit to applying the same rules to vitamins, nutrients and minerals that it follows for other non-organic materials.

Instead, the NOP has backpedalled on the whole idea of making manufacturers of synthetic nutrients petition the National Organic Standards Board to include their ingredients on the National List. Its last action on the issue, an interim rule, reset the Bush Administration status quo and gives food processors a temporary pass to use synthetic nutrients in organic foods.

We have to let the NOP know that this huge loophole for potentially dangerous, synthetic nutrients derived from genetically modified microorganisms is unacceptable.

Tell the USDA National Organic Program You Want Nutrition from Organic Food, Not Synthetic Vitamins!



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