Lessons Learned from the Green Pasture Fermented Cod Liver Oil Scandal

fclo-300x300The news spread like wildfire over the weekend. Dr. Kaayla Daniel of the Weston A. Price Foundation published a scathing report about one of the natural food world’s most beloved products: Fermented Cod Liver Oil from Green Pasture.

As the story goes, fermented fish livers were the secret wonder food of Scandinavian Vikings and Roman Soldiers alike – at least according to Green Pasture’s marketing materials. It’s what gave them strong bones, a low instance of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis. And now thanks to a proprietary process, Green Pasture claimed the ability to do something that no home fermenter has been able to do: to replicate and even improve upon the traditional process of fermenting cod livers in a way that doesn’t denature the fragile Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA and even increases levels of the the important nutrients: vitamins A and D. At over $40 per bottle retail, this wonder food is recommended to nearly everyone, including pregnant women and children.

Well Dr. Kaayla’s report casts all of this into doubt. Lab tests that she contracted out to numerous reputable labs seem to indicate the following:

  1. The oil tests as being highly rancid. I discussed the topic of rancidity in this 2012 blog post, in which I mention that rancid foods not only lose their nutritional value, but also produce potentially toxic compounds that have been linked to advanced aging, neurological disorders, heart disease and cancer. So this alone is a very serious accusation.
  2. Total Vitamin D levels are strikingly low – even lower than what would be expected from a natural cod liver oil. This is very disappointing, since FCLO is often touted as the best dietary source of vitamin D.
  3. Quinone levels (e.g. vitamin K2) are low – as above, it measure even lower than from commercial non-fermented cod liver oils that were tested.
  4. The oil may not even be from cod. Several clues seem to indicate that the product is more likely made from the livers of cheaper, possibly farmed fish – or maybe Alaskan pollock or dogfish (in the shark family). Daniel seems convinced the tests indicate the product is not from true cod (I suppose it could be a matter of debate whether you call Alaskan pollock “cod.”)
  5. The product appears to contain trans-fats. Tests indicate the presence of, “a heat-damaged vegetable oil containing trans fats.
  6. There is much secrecy in Green Pasture’s production process. Apparently many fermentation professionals have asked Green Pasture’s founder, Dave Wetzel, how they are able to properly ferment a low carbohydrate product like cod liver and what starter they use, but the responses have been vague at best and sometimes even insulting. Interestingly, no patent application has ever been filed around their process. Daniel also claims that Wetzel has been similarly elusive about the source of his livers, “sometimes whispering that his source is a mysterious un- named Russian and other times declaring he obtains all his livers from unnamed suppliers supposedly accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council.
  7. Other labs haven’t been able to replicate the nutrient and safety test results generated by the small lab that Green Pasture uses. UBE Analytical Laboratories apparently uses a proprietary testing method called HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography), the details of which the lab manager refuses to disclose. The other more reputable labs that Dr. Daniel claims to have contracted with have not been able to replicate most of the results from UBE, though the names of those labs haven’t been disclosed.

I strongly recommend reading the entire report, as Dr. Daniel’s report is extremely thorough with a ton of endnotes after each section. I also am anxiously awaiting the response from Green Pasture, which will hopefully come out very soon (UPDATE: the initial response is available here). So while I think it’s unfair to jump to too many conclusions before hearing both sides out, I do think that a few lessons can already be gleaned from this episode. They are:

  1. Get to know your food producers and demand transparency. Call them. Visit them. Ask tough questions. The thicker the “wall” between you and your producer, the greater the chances of being fooled or misled. I believe humans have good intuition for honesty and integrity when they can look each other in the eye and have direct conversations and observe each other at work. Many of us in the natural foods community do this routinely when we buy, say, a steak at the farmer’s market. But for a product like Green Pasture’s Fermented Cod Liver Oil, it’s easy to be lazy and just go with the recommendation of someone we trust, like a representative of the Weston A. Price Foundation, since it’s not a product we can source from anywhere else. And I also don’t mean to imply that all of us can realistically get to know the producers of every product we consume. But just being cognizant to the risks of foods from people you don’t know is a good start and could hopefully prevent us from jumping too heavily into whatever the next nutritional bandwagon may be.
  2. Be suspicious of secrecy. Food production methods should never be proprietary. Especially when your life could be at stake. If a food production method is new, that’s also a red flag because it takes a long time for the effects on the human body to become apparent. The same holds true for drugs, btw, but unfortunately proprietary methods are the name of the game in that industry. Luckily in the food world, transparency is valued and offered by so many producers that we never have to be forced to just take what we can get. 
  3. Listen to your body. And trust your senses. If a food makes you want to throw up, as this product does for my husband and many others, then maybe it’s not a good idea to force it down. There’s a lot of conditioning in our society that leads us to believe, “No pain, no gain,” but I believe that when it comes to food, this is not good advice. One adage I think *is* worth heeding is, “trust but verify.” If you’re taking this product to treat vitamin D deficiency, then be sure to have your D levels re-tested after consuming the product. I believe our bodies are all different and the impact of a supplement on one person might be drastically different than on another person.
  4. Everything in moderation. I’ve come to accept that there is no wonder food. Every food I’ve ever held up on a pedestal eventually came crashing down. Fish often contains heavy metals. Extra virgin olive oil is often adulterated. Milk is often produced from cows injected full of hormones. Same with yogurt, which is often made with carcinogenic powdered milk.  Flax seeds are likely often rancid, especially in this country where we don’t refrigerate them in stores.  I think that the human body is incredibly adaptable and can figure out how to get what it needs if you expose it to a wide variety of foods, include a bit of the bad ones. If a food sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course. But after the sting of this story wears off, I want to walk away having at least learned something.

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