The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based group that typically represents the interests of small farm-holders but is active in other debates, has called on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enforce a prohibition on hexane-extracted ingredients in organic produce.
Cornucopia has filed a legal complaint with the USDA which it accused of pandering to industry interests at the expense of public health by not enforcing the ban.
Cornucopia has filed other complaints with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to which it has had no response and co-director Mark Kastel said the legal complaint was unlikely to be heard within six months.
Martek, whose branded life'sDHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid) ingredients have been present on the US market since 2002 but only in organic products since 2006, said hexane-extracted agricultural ingredients were indeed banned under USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rules.
However fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 were not considered agricultural ingredients, it said.
Rather, the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), which establishes organic criteria, had classified them as necessary "nutrient vitamins and minerals" and therefore exempted them despite the fact they were hexane-extracted.
AMS rule 205.605 lists nutrient vitamins and minerals as permitted non-agricultural (non-organic) substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as "organic" or "made with organic" in specified ingredients or food groups.
"Martek's DHA and ARA oils are considered non-agricultural, accessory nutrients and are allowed in the production of products to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic under the NOP," Martek spokesperson Cassandra France-Kelly told NutraIngredients-USA.com.
Hexane extraction is widely used in the production of oils such as fatty acids as well as vegetable oils but is banned in organic produce because it is a non-organic material.
Aside from the market status of the ingredients, Cornucopia had written to the FDA over adverse reactions such as diarrhea and vomiting among infants who consumed DHA/ARA-fortified infant formula.
Kastel said its letter had sparked an FDA investigation into the matter that was ongoing.
He called for, at the very least, a warning label alerting parents to possible side effects to be attached to all products containing hexane-treated omega-3 and omega-6 ingredients.
But Martek said warning labels were unnecessary.
"There has been no statistical rise in the number of adverse events since our ingredients were introduced into infant formulas in 2002," France-Kelly said. "The fact is babies get sick, some react to infant formula yes, but that could be milk proteins or other ingredients. To link these ailments with the presence of omega-3s and omega-6s is spurious at best."
She said the health benefits of omega-3s and omega-6s for infants were well documented and spoke for themselves. These included heart, ocular and cognitive benefits.
Earlier this year Cornucopia commissioned a report in conjunction with the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy, called "Replacing Mother-Imitating Human Breast Milk in the Laboratory" which criticized the fortification of infant formula with fatty acids.
The report cited reasons listed above as well as other concerns such as the manner in which "as good as breast milk" marketing had led to a decline in the number of women willing to breast-feed.
Martek responded to the report in January by highlighting pediatrician support and the fact its algae-derived fatty acid ingredients are found in a majority of infant formula products in the US.
The Maryland-based supplier said expert panels from the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization and Europe-based Child Health Foundation recommended the addition of DHA and ARA in infant formula at the levels found in breast milk.
Martek's fatty acid ingredients have been present in the European market since 1993.