Costco in its Kirkland brand “organic” milk. It adds “refined fish oil” to the milk and boasts of high-levels of Omega-3 fats. But Costco acquires much of that milk from Aurora, a mega-dairy of 15,000 cows in Colorado. According to The Post’s nutrient analysis, without supplementation, Aurora milk lagged behind other organic milks in the amount of Omega-3s.
The idea for creating the DHA algal oil that goes into Horizon milk is credited in part to Bill Barclay, a scientist whose quest, in many ways, was as idealistic as those who champion organics. He, too, aimed to remedy the modern diet.
For years, a group of scientists had argued that contemporary meals were lacking in substances known as Omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in larger amounts in fatty fish and grazing animals. Since so many farm animals are fed a grain diet and no longer graze — a practice that leads to more Omega-3s in their meat and milk — these scientists argued that supplementing modern diets with more Omega-3s would provide health benefits.
While some recent studies have indicated the Omega-3 supplementation does not produce measurable health benefits, the argument among some scientists continues, and many people still turn to fish oil pills to goose up their Omega-3 consumption.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a lot of medical data that DHA could have a significant impact on human health,” Barclay recalled in a phone interview.
Fish oil pills had taste and odor problems, as Barclay noted, so he set out to find an alternative source of Omega-3s. He quickly turned to algae. The challenge was finding a strain that was commercially suitable — one that would grow fast and yield the oil. He persuaded his wife to allow him to take out $25,000 from their mortgage and take a year to lay the groundwork for a business.
Somewhere on the coast of Southern California — he won’t say where — Barclay came upon the Schizochytrium. While lots of algae replicate just once a day, this strain, when fed properly, could replicate five to nine times a day. Others, too, had been looking at algae as a way of feeding NASA astronauts in space.
DSM, which has succeeded Barclay’s start-up, now produces the algal oil and has sold it for use in milk, cheeses, yogurt, cereals and protein bars. When destined for food products, the oil is processed without the use of harsh solvents such as hexane, the company said.
The oil is vegetarian, sustainable and “does not contribute to overfishing,” DSM said in a statement. “We highly value our organic partners and believe that our products are consistent with the important values of the organic industry, including health and nutrition, quality, and sustainability.”
After Horizon began selling the organic milk supplemented with the algal oil in 2007, sales took off.
There was just one problem. The additive might have violated organic regulations.
In January 2012, after five years of sales, the USDA issued a complicated notice in the Federal Register explaining that the USDA’s National Organic Program had “incorrectly interpreted” some federal regulations. The result was that some supplements to organic products had been allowed that shouldn’t have been. Among those allowed by mistake was DHA algal oil.
“Examples of ingredients added to organic products which are outside [the regulation] include certain forms of DHA … in fluid milk and dairy products,” it said.
Several months later, the USDA issued a new “interim” rule regarding the supplements for organic products. Its intention, the USDA said, was to “provide continuity to the organic industry” and to avoid “widespread disruption.”
In ruling at least temporarily in favor of algal oil and other additives, the USDA noted that an advisory board had recommended to allow the oil’s use in organic products.
“This action enables the industry to continue with the status quo until additional public comments are received and a final rule is published,” the USDA said.
Almost five years later, the status quo continues. A final rule has not been published.
That leaves consumers buying an “organic” milk supplemented with algal oil, though many likely don’t know that stainless steel vats of Schizochytrium are the source of the Omega-3s in the milk. According to Consumer Reports surveys, 7 out of 10 consumers think the USDA should not permit the use of non-organic ingredients in organic food production if they are not deemed essential, Vallaeys said. The USDA position means that millions of people buying milk may be getting something different than the “USDA Organic” seal seems to promise.
“Algal oil is one of several nutrient additives that have not gone through this proper review and approval process,” Vallaeys said. “It’s very disappointing that we have yet to see proper enforcement action from the National Organic Program on this issue.”