The Cornucopia Institute filed a formal request with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today, asking for an investigation into Dean Foods' advertisements for its Horizon milk with Omega-3 DHA, alleging the nation's largest dairy conglomerate with consumer fraud in misrepresenting the nutritional benefits of its products.
The dairy giant's White Wave division, which markets the Horizon organic milk brand, recently launched a major nationwide marketing campaign that focuses on purported benefits to children's brain development from drinking milk with added DHA oil, which is highly processed from fermented algae.
According to the Cornucopia Institute's complaint, Dean Foods' claims that their proprietary DHA oil "supports brain health" are not based on credible scientific evidence, and are therefore misleading consumers.
"DHA is one of many naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids, which scientists believe is beneficial when consumed through real, wholesome foods such as fish, flax seeds, nuts or grass fed milk and meat. But the DHA in Horizon's milk comes from a highly processed oil, extracted from fermented algae," said Charlotte Vallaeys, director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit research group based in Wisconsin, in a prepared statement. "There is little scientific evidence to support the claim that adding these manufactured oils to foods is in any way beneficial to children's cognitive development," she adds.
The algal oil is manufactured and marketed by Martek Biosciences Corp., based in Maryland. The Cornucopia Institute has charged that food processors adding Martek's algal oils to organic foods are in violation of the Organic Food Production Act and USDA organic standards, which prohibit unapproved non-organically produced ingredients in organic foods.
As reported in the Washington Post, a former administrator at the USDA's National Organic Program, during the Bush administration, allowed these oils in organics after she was contacted by a corporate lobbyist who asked her to reinterpret the federal rules governing organic foods, the institute claims. Last year, the new director of the National Organic Program, which regulates organic foods on the U.S. market, publicly stated that ingredients like Martek's oils have been allowed in organic foods due to an "incorrect" interpretation of the federal organic standards, the institute claims.
Under current organic standards, food processors may add essential nutrients to organic foods if they are covered under the Food and Drug Administration's official fortification rule, the institute claims. Essential nutrients that have been proven to benefit public health, like folic acid, which prevent birth defects, can legally be added to organic foods. But both the FDA and organic advocates advise against indiscriminate fortification of foods, the institute claims.
Earlier this week, on April 18, the National Organic Program made public a document by the Food and Drug Administration that clearly states that DHA oils are not "essential nutrients" and are not covered under the FDA's fortification policy.
Cornucopia stated that its research indicates that 90 percent of all organic milk brands are supplied by ethical family-scale farmers and do not include any questionable additives.
"These highly processed, novel ingredients do not belong in organic foods, and it is important to remember that very few processors are adding them. Companies like Dean Foods/Horizon realize that these are valuable marketing tools, designed to create a competitive advantage, even if science does not back up their marketing claims," said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst with Cornucopia.
The FTC, the government agency charged by Congress for ensuring that companies advertise truthfully in the marketplace, has already sent a dozen warning letters to companies that use DHA algal oil as the basis for claims that their products benefit children's brain development, the institute claims.
In addition, the Cornucopia Institute is asking the FTC to investigate Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician (who maintains a popular Website advising parents) for allegedly making false statements to promote Dean's Horizon products. Cornucopia is also pursuing a separate professional ethics complaint against Dr. Greene.
In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority rejected a petition to allow a health claim related to DHA supplementation in milk for babies and toddlers and brain development, citing "insufficient" scientific data to support such a claim.
In its formal request to the FTC, the Cornucopia Institute lays out scientific data that shows that the addition of DHA to infant formula does not benefit babies' cognitive development.
Few clinical trials have been conducted to assess the benefits of Martek's oils for children's brain development, and those that have been conducted have largely shown no benefits exist, the institute claims.
"Given that the FTC has already warned companies that they need convincing scientific evidence to substantiate their claims that DHA supplementation benefits brain development, it is disturbing to see a company flout these warnings and launch a major advertising campaign — centered around the very same claims that the FTC warned them against," said Vallaeys.