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Obama administration bans two additives used in organic baby food

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Obama administration announced Tuesday that two synthetic additives will no longer be permitted in infant formula or baby foods certified as organic because the widely used ingredients have not received legal approval for use in organic products.

The additives -- omega-3 fatty acid DHA and omega-6 fatty acid ARA -- are present in 90 percent of organic infant formulas and are marketed as promoting brain and eye development in ways that mimic breast milk.

The Washington Post reported last July that U.S. Department of Agriculture employees had concluded three years earlier that the fatty acids violated federal standards and should be banned from products carrying the federal organic label. Their findings were overruled by a USDA program manager who had been heavily lobbied by the formula industry.

"Today's announcement will strengthen the National Organic Program by providing greater confidence for consumers and better information and procedures for producers," Miles V. McEvoy, deputy administrator of the USDA program, said in a statement.

Organic-food advocates -- including Charlotte Vallaeys, who filed complaints about the substances with the USDA -- said the decision will help restore consumers' faith in the certification program.

"This move will give consumers the assurance that the USDA is taking organics seriously and isn't allowing backroom deals," said Vallaeys, a food policy analyst with the Cornucopia Institute, an organics advocacy group.

The fatty acids in formula are often produced using a potential neurotoxin known as hexane, prompting many organics advocates to conclude that the regulatory National Organic Standards Board would not approve their use if it took up the matter.

Barbara Robinson, the former National Organic Program manager, overruled the staff decision in 2006 after a telephone call and an e-mail exchange with William J. Friedman, a lawyer who represented the formula makers.

Robinson, who has since retired, declined to comment. Friedman did not return a call seeking comment.

The USDA will now craft guidelines for companies phasing out the additives. That process could take up to a year or longer.

At the same time, the industry that produces the ARA and DHA additives will petition the standards board, asking that it recommend that the fatty acids be allowed into organic food.

"Our hope is that this can be done before the additives are phased out so there are no interruptions," said Cassie France-Kelly, spokeswoman for Market Biosciences, a producer of fatty acids. "There is no organic alternative to these fatty acids and we firmly believe that DHA and ARA are important to health."

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