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Organic Consumers Association

Happy Bellies Organic Baby Cereals Contain GMO DHA

  • By Alexis Baden-Mayer, Esq., Political Director
    Organic Consumers Association, December 31, 2011
    Straight to the Source

If you took action on Organic Consumers Association's alert, Tell Organic Baby Food Brands to Stop Using GMOs! you have probably received a reply from Shazi Visram, Founder and CEO of HAPPYFAMILY, who insists that the DHA used in her Happy Bellies baby cereal is non-GMO. Here's a point-by-point rebuttal to Visram's letter, quoted below in full.

  • Andre Stoklasa <Andre@happyfamilybrands.com>
    Subject: Please read this response to your email. Our Cereal DOES NOT contain GMOs
    Date:12/30/2011 03:34 PM
  • Dear Concerned Consumer,
  • Hello from HAPPYFAMILY, and thank you for inquiring about our use of DHA in our HAPPYBELLIES whole grain cereal.
  • We feel that you as an ethical consumer are being misled and our good name is being abused by an outside party. It is very difficult as this company's founder and a parent myself to see these unfounded allegations regarding GMOs, so I wanted to respond to you personally.
  • First and foremost, every decision we make is based on socially responsible ideals that business can positively impact our world, especially with our ingredient sourcing. It has been a personal goal of mine since day one to support sustainable agriculture. Our DHA is sourced from the safest and most sustainable source: algae. It does not contain harmful mercury found in fish oils, and most importantly, no genetic modification is used in this process. None whatsoever.

Whether the DHA used in Happy Bellies cereal is GMO, depends on how you define genetically modified. DSM Nutritional Products, which owns Martek Biosciences and its Life'sDHA and LIfe'sARA products, uses the European Commission definition, which puts its products in the category for "complex novel food from a non-gm source." But European law exempts certain techniques of genetic modification from its definition of a GMO:

  • Techniques of genetic modification to be excluded from this Directive, on condition that they do not involve the use of GMOs as recipient or parental organisms, are:
  • (1) mutagenesis,
  • (2) cell fusion (including protoplast fusion) of plant cells where the resulting organisms can also be produced by traditional breeding methods.

The U.S. organic law's definition of GMO is altogether different, and it is also worth pointing out that no organic regulator, in Europe or anywhere else in the world, allows the DHA found in Happy Bellies cereal to be used in organic food. Here's the definition of GMO in the U.S. organic regulations:

  • Excluded methods. A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.

Given this definition, the most obvious reason Happy Bellies' DHA doesn't belong in organic is that it is microencapsulated. Here's a press release about the microencapsulation technology that DSM/Martek licenses from General Mills to manufacture the DHA powder Happy Bellies uses. GAT Food Essentials also partners with DSM/Martek to microencapsulate DHA.

Happy Bellies' DHA is also produced through the use of mutagenesis. As noted above, because the EU excludes mutagenesis from its GMO regulations, Happy Bellies thinks that algae that is mutated to produce higher levels of DHA is non-GMO. But, this reading of the law ignores the plain language which clearly describes mutagenesis as a "technique of genetic modification." EU law says it's GMO, it just doesn't regulate mutagenesis like other techniques of genetic modification.

In Canada, the definition of genetically modified food includes an organism that has had some of its inheritable traits changed "using chemicals or radiation to alter the genetic make-up of the organism's cells in a process called mutagenesis." Happy Bellies' DHA is on Canada's list of genetically modified foods.

The U.S. organic law doesn't specifically mention mutagenesis, but it is clear that the production of Happy Bellies' DHA falls into the broad category of "methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production."

Mutagenesis involves exposing cells to radiation or mutagenic chemicals to create a variety of mutant cells from which desired characteristics can be selected. DSM boasts the invention of modern extensions of this process, including "site-directed mutagenesis technology." DSM screens the vast numbers of microbial strains produced by random mutagenesis and selects for improved properties using a robotic High-Throughput Screening (HTS) facility which automates analytical tasks, including complex enzymatic analyses and high-tech flow-injection Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Then, they use recombinant-DNA technology to combine multiple mutations in a single organism.

Back to Visram's letter:

  • Our DHA is sourced from the safest and most sustainable source: algae. It does not contain harmful mercury found in fish oils, and most importantly, no genetic modification is used in this process. None whatsoever. This was recently confirmed by the U.S. National Organic Standards Board. If this DHA had ever involved genetic modification, we never would have included it in our products.

Happy Bellies' DHA was NOT included by the National Organic Standards Board in its recent approval generic versions of DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil. I was at the meeting and was witness to a last-minute change in the DSM/Martek petition, where DSM/Martek lawyer Jay Friedman announced on the record that the petition would not apply to the powder forms of DHA and ARA used in infant formulas and baby cereals.

Organic Caucus chair Congressman Sam Farr confirmed this in a letter to constituents stating:

  • "there is one strain of the DHA-producing algae that has been genetically engineered"
  • "that is not the strain that was approved by the NOSB [National Organic Standards Board]," and
  • the DHA approved by the NOSB is "not the kind used in infant formula and baby cereals."

The only conclusion to draw from this statement is that the DHA used in organic infant formula and baby cereals, including Happy Bellies, is from the strain of DHA-producing algae that has been genetically engineered and this DHA was not approved by the NOSB.

Visram's letter continues:

  • If this DHA had ever involved genetic modification, we never would have included it in our products.

    You can find a detailed FAQ about DHA available on our website at: http://www.happybabyfood.com/what-is-dha. If you would like more scientific information about the process, we are happy to provide it.

Happy Bellies' DHA FAQ doesn't address microencapsulation or mutagenesis. I encourage OCA members to write to Visram to request scientific information on the use of these processes in the production of Happy Bellies' DHA.

Visram's letter concludes:

  • Our company was founded on the mission of doing the absolute best for our children by giving them access to optimally formulated organic nutrition. We do not use GMOs in any of our products, including the HAPPYBELLIES cereal. It says this clearly on the label. Our own children have grown up on HAPPYBELLIES, which we believe is the most nutritious cereal in the marketplace with DHA for brain and eye development and pre and probiotics for digestive wellness as well as organic oats, amaranth, quinoa and brown rice. We were the first baby food company to create a probiotic cereal, and the first organic baby food company to use DHA, which is a building block for our children's growing brains and eyes during a time they need it most.

    I hope this email sheds more light on this topic and clarifies our position - we too believe GMOs are not meant for our babies' growing bodies. We believe this so strongly that we have made it our life's work to create a truly HAPPY brand to ensure parents have the safest and healthiest options for their children.

    If you still have any questions or concerns, we are more than happy to speak with you further. Please send any additional comments to parents@happyfamilybrands.com.

    Happy New Year from your team at HAPPYFAMILY!

    Most sincerely,
    Shazi Visram
    Founder and CEO, HAPPYFAMILY

I wish I could conclude that Visram's belief that the DHA is non-GMO is sincere, but too much information to the contrary has been disclosed. Visram is undoubtedly aware of this information and refuses to address it. Visram should investigate the use of microencapsulation and mutagenesis in Happy Bellies' DHA and disclose to consumers how she justifies her belief that the DHA is non-GMO.

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