So, maybe you’ve heard the big controversy that recently broke in the real food community about fermented cod liver oil.
If you’ve missed it, here’s a summary.
Green Pasture is a company in Nebraska that makes fermented cod liver oil (FCLO) and high vitamin butter oil (HVBO) products. This company has been HEAVILY promoted by the renowned Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), which claims that the Green Pasture FCLO is the best cod liver oil available and recommends it for everybody of all ages.
The Vice President of WAPF, Kaayla Daniel, PhD, has independently published what amounts to an exposé on the Green Pasture FCLO. She asserts that Green Pasture products are rancid rather than fermented, and that perhaps they aren’t even sourced from codfish.
Here are three blog posts that are excerpts from Daniel’s report. If you want the full report including original test results, you might be able to access it here, or you might have to do what I did and follow the link from one of the above articles and give name and email address to download it.
David Wetzel, the owner of Green Pasture, has responded to some of Daniel’s challenges in a blog post.
Since we carry Green Pasture FCLO, we have been asked by multiple customers about what’s going on, and to share our opinion.
After many hours researching this, I think there are several issues worth considering.
1) Does Green Pasture FCLO contain the levels of vitamins claimed in their literature?
Well, it seems like probably not. In his rebuttal blog post, Wetzel didn’t even argue that point. However, he said that the amount of vitamins is less important than the bio-activity of the vitamins. He says their bio-activity is very high.
Maybe he is right. It would be hard to know for certain, unless they are also having other CLOs tested at the same time, in the same manner, and releasing all of the test results to compare them side by side. Regardless, leading people to believe that there are certain levels and then under-delivering is at the very least a poor practice.
2) Is Green Pasture FCLO actually fermented, or is it rancid?
Oil cannot be fermented. So the oil itself is not actually fermented. This is not in contention. What is in contention is whether the cod livers are fermented, or whether they have gone rancid and putrid.
The argument is that carbohydrates are required for fermentation and there just isn’t enough in oil if you don’t add extra sugar. For years, people have assumed that Green Pasture was adding some kind of extra sugar. According to Wetzel, “A word on our process: our simple process uses salt, fish broth starter, and livers. We do not dilute our oil, add anything, or use molasses, other sugars, or algae. I know it sounds too simple but it is exactly as we describe. No different than fermented fish sauce or pickled fish products….”
“Fermenting” a fish would present the same problems as fermenting a fish liver, as there are few carbohydrates, and certainly not enough to allow it to ferment for months or even a full year. I didn’t know anything about the process of making fermented fish sauce, so I did a little research. And the research said exactly what Wetzel said, that it involves leaving the fish parts in a barrel of salty water out in the sun for up to year. So it is quite possible that the process he’s describing is viable to make a good product, I don’t really know. It might not be “fermentation” or more specifically “lacto-fermentation” as we commonly know it, but fermentation may be the closest descriptor we have. However, it was pointed out to me that polyunsaturated omega fatty acids go rancid quickly when exposed to oxygen and there are much higher levels in cod liver oil than in fish sauce so a greater susceptibility.
According to the Wikipedia entry on fermented fish sauce, “Another factor is the sauce should not have a particularly strong smell, and it should be transparent with a deep golden amber color.”
Another page advised, “Look for fish sauce with a clear, reddish brown color, like the color of good whisky or sherry, without any sediments. If the color is a dark or muddy brown, the sauce is likely to be either a lower grade, or one that is not properly or naturally fermented; it may also have been sitting on the shelf a bit too long. Good fish sauce also has a pleasant aroma of the sea, not an overwhelming smelly fishiness, and should not be overly salty.” Other sites agreed with these: clear reddish fluid was good, darker with any sediment was poor quality.
Anybody that has tried FCLO knows that it doesn’t just have a strong odor. It stinks. It is foul. And every one that I have tried was a very dark color. But does that mean it is rancid?
Some of the test results that Dr. Daniel published in her report have markers called free fatty acids that indicate rancidity. Some of the other markers of rancidity are “early markers” which dissipate as the product becomes progressively more rancid.
The Green Pasture FCLO products show either low or undetectable levels of these early markers in all of the test results I’ve seen. However, all of them, even the ones that Wetzel and WAPF say clearly indicate there are no signs of rancidity, contain these free fatty acids.
Wetzel says that free fatty acids are a natural process that occurs in the body, and so they are perfectly safe. As far as I can tell, he is correct in the first assertion, but there are several studies that link free fatty acids to insulin resistance and other complications. I’m of the opinion that fish livers, and specifically cod livers CAN be fermented in the same manner as fish sauce to make a good, safe product. It would seem that Green Pasture may have a problem in their process, either the fermenting of it, or the extracting or cleaning of the oil.
3) Is Green Pasture FCLO safe to use?
It is commonly believed that eating anything rancid is not good for you. It might not kill you, but there are things in rancid products that just aren’t beneficial to healthy living. It’s the same with rotten products. Some people claim there are health benefits to eating rotten things. I don’t know about that. I do know that rotten stuff is “blech” as my 2 and 3 year old sons would say.
Wetzel said they just passed a 4-year food safety test. I don’t know what that means and he didn’t elaborate. If it means that it is tested for botulism or a similar food poisoning bacteria like they would on canned foods, well of course it wouldn’t have that (for the same reason that oil cannot ferment: no carbs).
What’s more is that trans fats were found in the FCLO in a not insignificant amount of 3.22% in one of the lab findings. Trans fats are not “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, and manufacturers have until 2018 to get them out of foods (or get an exception). Trans fats are believed to be one of the biggest contributors to heart disease.
Dr. Ron, of Dr. Ron’s Ultra Pure, has some serious concerns about fermented cod liver oil, but his problem might have resulted from any kind of cod liver oil, not specifically the fermented kind.
4) Is Green Pastures FCLO diluted with a vegetable oil?
At least one of the test results Dr. Daniel reported is difficult if not impossible to explain if the product is NOT diluted. Interestingly, this is something that Wetzel didn’t address in his rebuttal. Perhaps he doesn’t have a good answer (either he didn’t/doesn’t know what is happening up the supply line, or doesn’t have a favorable way of presenting it and so he’s going to leave it alone), or perhaps he doesn’t consider this to be much of a problem.
For me, this is a HUGE issue. If you’re buying a premium product, you expect it to BE a premium product, and not diluted with something cheap. The fact that the report indicates it was a heat-damaged vegetable oil, and according to Wetzel there is no heat used in their process, means an added oil was heated before it got into his product, or that the product is getting too hot during the process in spite of their no heat policy.
5) Is Green Pasture FCLO actually from cod livers?
This is another big concern of ours, as we are committed to remaining a full disclosure company. We want to know every ingredient in every product we sell.
Apparently the fish being used is Alaska Pollock, which has recently (Jan. 2014) been reclassified as being part of the same genus as cod, meaning, according to scientists, that it is a close relative. It is a very cheap fish (about 1/3 the cost of Atlantic Cod, according to one person) and very commonly used for fish sticks and the like.
But to my mind, if somebody thinks they are buying premium Norwegian Cod (which Green Pasture never states, but has definitely led people to believe with their rhetoric and even certain product names), and instead you’re giving them cheap “in the same family as cod” while continuing to charge them a premium price, that’s a problem. That’s a BIG problem.
Again, this is another area that Wetzel didn’t address at all in his rebuttal. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say.
Further research into this shows that while the changing of the scientific name may render this fish “a cod”, NOAA has determined that it still should be labeled Alaska Pollock and that it’s incorrect to label it cod. As of March 2015, requests to the FDA to be able to label it cod were still under review. A look at the FDA’s seafood list shows the only acceptable market names for this fish are “Pollock or Alaska Pollock”.
We are a full disclosure company and see this sort of thing as unethical, and because of FDA labeling laws, it might actually be illegal. A couple of years ago, Green Pasture was having really bad sourcing problems. They just couldn’t keep up with demand. They were out of stock a lot and when they did have stock, we were severely limited on how many FCLO products we could buy. I can’t help but wonder if at that time, a man had to make a difficult decision to try to keep his business going, and that’s how we arrived at this point.
6) What about the High Vitamin Butter Oil?
This shows signs of rancidity as well. Wetzel has reported at other times that the butter oil would have a strong fermented flavor. Since HVBO doesn’t even CLAIM to be a fermented product, one would wonder why that would be the case, unless it wasn’t being handled properly.
The other issue addressed by Daniel is one of reported sourcing. Apparently Green Pasture changed their sourcing from “northern great plains” and changed most of their product descriptions to remove that reference, but as of 10 days ago, at least one of their descriptions still said this. That has since been cleaned up, but they didn’t notify any of their resellers, and so those sites still carry the “great plains” sourcing description.
The new source is reportedly Argentinian, and appears to be quite good, containing no antibiotics, with high vitamin content, and no GMOs. And I can give somebody a pass for missing a detail on a product description and even failing to inform resellers about changes. We certainly don’t notify resellers every time we change a product description, and we regularly find out of date information on product descriptions. Still, it seems to fit into a pattern or projecting an image that isn’t true and being mum about actual sourcing.
7) Where is the WAPF in all of this?
There is kind of an incestuous relationship between Green Pasture and Weston A Price Foundation. Green Pasture ALWAYS gets premium billing and lots and LOTS of exposure from WAPF, over and above other companies that would seem to be on a par with Green Pasture in mission and quality. This is all free advertising for Green Pasture that’s worth literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps even millions over the 9 years this product has been held up by WAPF as the gold standard.
Green Pasture then pays for advertising in WAPF journals, pays for the super premium sponsorship at the WAPF conferences, and sponsors other giveaways and promotional efforts. So you wouldn’t expect WAPF to just throw Green Pasture under the bus, due to the relationship, but also due to very practical matters of finance. However, by WAPF’s statement, they do not seem to be looking for the truth in this matter, but looking for a way to quickly make this all go away.
The WAPF has issued a statement in support of Green Pasture and is planning to issue another much fuller statement after reviewing Dr. Daniel’s report further. I suspect that it too will be in support of Green Pasture.
WAPF released test results in February that seem to indicate no rancidity. The date on the test is in December though. The timing of the release of the test results is curious, as is their use of a UK lab, but both could have reasonable explanations. However, it was only one test from one lab, testing only for rancidity, and I have reason to believe it was in conjunction with Green Pasture, and not just a random bottle off of a shelf.
But the report does show free fatty acids, which Wetzel addresses in his rebuttal. “In industry, some companies use the level of free fatty acids for evaluation of the sales value. The level of free fatty acids can be used as an index for oxidation level in the oil. Oxidation processes can release the free fatty acid from the triglyceride which can happens during prolonged heating at high temperature. The presence of free fatty acids, in turn, can speed up oxidative reactions. There are no official standards for free fatty acids, and again, free fatty acid levels indicate nothing about the health safety by the oil industry. The test for free fatty acids is a titration where any chemical that can neutralize a base is listed as a free fatty acid.”
If that went over your head, the quick translation is, “free fatty acids don’t necessarily mean dangerous product”. My interpretation is, “Yes, we’ve got free fatty acids in our products, yes, they could be markers of oxidation, but our products are still safe.”
A quick search of “oil oxidation” brought back this description: “Oil oxidation is an undesirable series of chemical reactions involving oxygen that degrades the quality of an oil. Oxidation eventually produces rancidity in oil, with accompanying off flavours and smells.” Anybody that has tried Green Pasture fermented cod liver oil can testify to “off flavours and smells”.
Our Summary of it All
This is a great big mess. I feel like WAPF and Green Pasture did not listen to valid concerns, for whatever reasons, and that led to Daniel “going undercover” to do this investigation.
Green Pasture has a monetary interest in discrediting this report. WAPF has hitched their wagon to Green Pasture and would lose face and a lot of sponsorship dollars if Green Pasture suffers from a loss of consumer confidence. And Daniel is using this to build her email list, which in the world of information marketing means generating more leads, and getting more business. Every player seems to have reputation and money at stake, and it is hard to feel like you are getting truly unbiased information from the players when that is that case.
I will say that despite what some might think at this point, Wetzel seems not entirely without integrity. There are a lot of areas where it seems he has done things that we feel might be unethical, but as far as I can tell, Green Pasture hasn’t actually said anything that is untrue, or at least I can say that it seems they believe that what they say is true. It seems they may have left out information, been vague about some things, and allowed misinformation that was favorable to continue to be rehearsed by others without correcting them when they could have, but they haven’t knowingly lied that I can tell. And I don’t think there is necessarily malice involved. I think Wetzel and Green Pasture believe that they are providing a fantastic product, and that increasing the spread of the product is in everyone’s best interest.
However, I also know from personal experience that when there is a lot of money on the line, it is easy to talk yourself into believing all sorts of things, and it can be a slippery slope. Being out of stock on a single signature product (or having consumers lose faith in the product) can seriously hurt a business, and when that product makes up a HUGE percentage of your business, it can be crippling. Believe me, it is hard to see people out there cutting corners and not be tempted to dip your own toe in.
Where does Beeyoutiful stand?
For years, we routinely recommended FCLO for people who were trying to heal from major illnesses or conditions. That has changed as we’ve had concerns ourselves about FCLO for a couple of years.
We did not have any hard data to base this on, except that things seemed to be a little “off” here and there with the information coming out of Green Pasture, and their relationship with WAPF just didn’t seem normal. Response to criticism, or even questions, was not handled well by either organization and did not result in good information being shared and a good dialogue taking place. Basically, the response felt like “This is the gospel and how dare you question it!”
Due to our concerns over the years, we have tried adding on a number of different cod liver oil products, and were grateful to be able to add Rosita Extra Virgin Cod Liver Oil as a really great alternative to Green Pasture products. It is super high quality, and their ratfish oil is even more nutrient dense. The prices coincide with the quality. We also added an excellent extra virgin butter oil from Organic 3 that is very fresh tasting.
We’ve been recommending Rosita oils instead of the FCLO products for some time now. We continued carrying the Green Pasture FCLO products, as we have many customers that want them and because we still believe there is some value in them, just as we believe there is some value in just about any CLO you can find regardless of how it was processed (assuming it really is cod liver oil!).
But we’re not happy with the responses we’re hearing. Wetzel says he has lawyers going over Dr. Daniel’s report. Not scientists, chemists, biologists, or other experts in processing or whatever, but lawyers. He hasn’t offered to launch his own investigation into his supply chain or review his processes. He isn’t forthcoming with sourcing information that might quickly dispel some of these claims. That doesn’t seem like an attempt to get at the truth.
Unfortunately, “It’s safe, we promise, take our word for it and keep buying!” just isn’t going to cut it for us at this point.
I would have expected an organization like WAPF to respond with something like, “Wow, these are serious claims that we need to investigate.” But, that hasn’t been the case. As far as I can tell, they, like Wetzel, are not planning to investigate the product, or process, or sourcing, but instead to investigate the claims and the test results. They seem to be circling the wagons in full support of Green Pasture.
At this point it kinda has the look and feel that what we will get from them in the coming days is an attempt to discredit the report, or the author, to explain away findings, and to sweep the whole affair under the rug. They have said they will release another statement soon, and we’re waiting to see what they say.
These are not the responses that we’ve wanted to see. We are a full-disclosure company, and trusted Green Pasture because of WAPF’s endorsement. Now it seems that our faith may have been misplaced.
We don’t want to be associated with this. We will not be recommending Green Pasture Fermented Cod Liver Oil products. We will continue selling the product while awaiting the promised further responses from both Wetzel and WAPF, but won’t reorder for the time being.
Depending on how things shake out over the next couple of weeks, we may indeed stop carrying the product altogether. We’ll see how WAPF and Green Pasture address our concerns in their point by point response to this report.
We’re interested in your opinions too. Please leave us a comment and let us know what you think, and feel free to ask us any questions that might be on your mind, and READ OUR SECOND UPDATE HERE.
Further reading from other viewpoints: