Horizon has found itself at the heart of a debate about whether milk fortified with DHA-rich algal oil can really be considered organic, The Washington Post reports.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in 2012 that organic regulations had been misinterpreted and additives such as algal oil should not have been allowed in certified organic products. This was five years after the milk was first sold. In order to avoid disrupting the market, USDA decided to continue allowing such additives.
The National Organic Standards Board, which makes recommendations to the USDA, has said that algal oil and other additives have no place in organic milk. Former NOSB chair Barry Flamm told The Washington Post, “You might say additives should be allowed for health reasons, but I never saw an additive that you couldn’t get in real foods.”
Some argue that consumers buying milk high in omega-3 fatty acids expect that the nutrient comes from good farming practices rather than added ingredients. There is evidence that milk from grazing cows contains up to 60% more of the nutrient than conventional milk.
Horizon’s milk does list “DHA algal oil” among its ingredients. However, it remains unclear whether consumers would feel duped if they knew that the algal oil was exempt from organic certification. Consumer Reports surveys suggest that seven out of 10 consumers think non-organic ingredients should not be allowed in organic foods unless they are essential, the Post reports. USDA organic regulations allow several non-organic ingredients. These include agricultural products like gelatin, guar gum and cornstarch, for which organic versions are not available, as well as minerals, cultures, enzymes and glycerin.
The issue is not limited to Horizon milk. Costco’s Kirkland brand organic milk also contains an additive to boost omega-3 content: refined fish oil.
Both companies are currently acting within the law. And Horizon’s omega-3 fortified milk is popular, suggesting that consumers are receptive to milk supplemented with such ingredients, whether or not they are aware of their background. Horizon’s fortified milk accounted for 14% of all organic milk sold in the United States last year, and the DHA-enriched version costs about 30 cents more than the regular variety.