Nutrient-rich oil from tiny crustaceans that feed the world’s largest animals may soon be part of the American military diet if a Norwegian company specializing in harvesting the shrimp-like krill has its way with Congress.
Aker BioMarine AS, the world’s biggest supplier of krill, has hired lobbyists to press the importance of addressing omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies among U.S. troops, something Defense Department scientists have identified as a problem. The company, which has a processing plant in Houston, brought on Prime Policy Group and Hill + Knowlton Strategies in March to push the issue, paying those firms a total of $50,000 at the end of that month, according to first quarter lobbying disclosures.
Researchers say omega-3 fatty acids are critical to peak physical and mental performance as well as injury recovery. Advocates say krill—the favorite delicacy for blue whales and other filter-feeding baleen whales—is better absorbed into the cells and tissues than other sources of omega-3, and without a fishy aftertaste.
Lobbyists say they’ve been targeting House and Senate armed services panels, the appropriations committees, the Congressional Dietary Supplement Caucus, and the Congressional Veterans Caucus in an effort to extract legislative provisions that would require the Defense Department to consider and plan for including omega-3 in military diets. The ranking Republicans on the House Armed Services and Appropriations committees, Mac Thornberry and Kay Granger, are from Texas though their districts don’t include Houston where the plant is.
“I used to work in the Pentagon and I know that quite often you work on orders,” said George Tagg, Hill + Knowlton’s global head of the government and public sector practice. “They have a lot of research priorities, so they have specifically pointed out the lack of a mandate,” coming from Pentagon leadership or Congress, he added.
The company is not seeking a pilot program or any dollar amount in defense authorization legislation, and the advocacy is primarily focused on raising the importance of omega-3s as part of troop readiness and health, Stefan Bailey, a managing partner at Prime Policy Group lobbying Congress on the issue, said in an interview.
The stakes for Aker BioMarine could be high. Any dietary requirements or strategy to include more omega-3 in military nutrition could create a boon for the company and its krill oil.
“It’s an enormous market because of the millions of soldiers, veterans, and their families,” said Tagg. The company is more focused on the research into omega-3 benefits rather than promoting a specific product, he said.
Aker BioMarine is owned by Aker ASA, an industrial investment company that specializes in the oil and gas, seafood and marine biotechnology sectors. Aker BioMarine’s operating revenues increased by 59% in 2019 to $247 million from $155 million the previous year, according to the parent company’s annual report.
The company employs about 100 people in the U.S., most of them at the Houston plant. It has primarily provided companies with krill oil for use in products, and recently developed its own brand of supplements called Kori Krill Oil widely available to consumers at stores such as Target.
Defense Policy Bill
The issue first surfaced on Capitol Hill in the National Defense Authorization Act process last year. The House Armed Services Committee report that accompanied its bill (H.R. 2500), urged the defense secretary to “develop a holistic program integrating effective dietary strategies to sustain health and performance” of the troops, mentioning a 2009 Defense Department and National Institutes of Health finding about negative impacts of omega-3 deficiencies. The Senate didn’t include any such language, and the recommendation didn’t make it into the final bill signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The House and Senate armed services committees are scheduled to start considering the fiscal year 2021 defense authorization bill in June. The measure sets funding level and military policy for the fiscal year starting Oct.1 and is seen as one of the yearly must-pass bills.
The Defense Department’s own studies have shown that insufficient omega-3 in the food that troops eat can take a toll on physical and mental health. Other studies, such as a 2013 Defense Science Board report, often cited by Aker, found that restoring omega-3 fatty acids would improve performance and help with recovery from injuries.
Most omega-3 supplements on the market are derived from oily fish or plants like algae, and some studies suggest that the fatty acid may play a role in physical and mental health, improving heart health and boosting mood, though the benefits of krill-derived omega-3s could benefit from additional study.
In addition to lobbying Congress, the company and its lobbying firms have been in talks with military leaders. They are offering collaboration with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and theCombat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center in Natick, Mass., which is focused on soldier readiness efforts, to help withresearch of krill oil and omega-3 supplements.
The Army has yet to issue the conclusions of a study designed to determine if supplementation with krill oil improved performance outcomes during the U.S. Army Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course as well as the subsequent Ranger course at Fort Benning, Ga. The primary outcome of the trial was to assess whether krill oil would improve cognitive function as well as psychological resilience, mental clarity and fatigue.
The trial took place 2016 to 2018 in conjunction with the Medical University of South Carolina and with the backing of the Army’s training and doctrine command. The National Institutes of Health also provided study coordinators and has published the clinical trial information.
The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine is currently looking into the “optimal omega-3 diet” for the military, according to the institute’s website. The Army Institute did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to supplying military clinics and post exchanges with krill oil supplements, Aker BioMarine envisions its product being included in the rations, or MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), that soldiers are provided. The company argues that, in addition to it being a better source of omega-3s than fish oil, it doesn’t come with the fishy aftertaste.
Some researchers have encouraged getting omega-3s straight from the diet by eating more fish and nuts, arguing consuming them from fresh foods may provide greater benefits than supplements. But that may not be an option for troops stationed in war zones often eating MREs.
Krill-derived omega-3s may come at a premium, however, according to a 2014 study by the National Institutes of Health that looked at the health claims surrounding the product.
The agency analyzed “common products,” and found that krill oil supplements cost about 30 cents per 100mg of key fatty acids, while its fish oil counterparts only cost from 1 cent to 15 cents per 100 mg. Although the company said that advances in production since the study have brought costs down, it acknowledges that it still may be more expensive than other sources of omega-3s.
“But not too expensive for the government to purchase,” Tagg said.