That USDA Organic label—a label that 75% of American families "highly trust," according to the Organic Trade Association—might not mean quite what you think.
Case in point? Horizon Organic Milk with DHA Omega-3.
Consumers bought more than 26 million gallons of Horizon Organic Milk with DHA Omega-3 last year—roughly 14% of all organic milk gallons sold. It's no surprise the milk is a big seller. According to the Mayo Clinic, omega-3 fatty acids are believed to offer a "wide variety of health functions." From their 2016 article on the topic: "Some of the better research shows that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can improve cardiovascular health. In addition, they can help maintain proper brain and nerve function, and they provide support for healthy joints and eyes. There's also some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can help manage weight."
The issue? The supplemental DHA Omega-3 in Horizon's Organic Milk is the result of a process many consumers would likely deem quite un-organic. The Washington Post recently detailed how Horizon cultivates the omega-3 rich oil inside industrial vats filled with schizochytrium algae. This algae is fed corn syrup so that it replicates faster (which speeds up the process and allows Horizon to produce more oil more quickly). Once the process is complete, this oil is added to the organic milk. This allows Horizon to advertise additional health benefits (the front of every carton reads "Supports Brain Health") while also charging a higher price.
If you flip over a carton of Horizon Organic Milk with DHA Omega-3, you'll notice the words "DHA Algal Oil" on the label. Next to it is an asterisk that notes "ingredient not found in regular milk." While that's certainly a form of disclosure, it may not be enough for many people who expect a true organic product.
"We do not think that [the oil] belongs in organic foods," Charlotte Vallaeys, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports, told the Post. "When an organic milk carton says it has higher levels of beneficial nutrients, like omega-3 fats, consumers want that to be the result of good farming practices…not from additives made in a factory."
Organic milk already contains more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk since regulations require the cattle that produce it to be grass-fed rather than grain-fed. The addition of algal oil cranks the levels of omega-3s in the milk even higher, but can the milk then really be called organic?
Apparently so, according to the USDA. The oil's presence in organic milk is due to the USDA misreading federal regulations, so Horizon isn't doing anything illegal as of now. The Post reports that the USDA "quietly acknowledged" their mistake but has yet to make any changes.
The whole incident casts doubt on what the USDA Organic label really stands for.
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