Sidebar: Billionaires, Dutch Coal & Snake Farms

As you will see in a moment, I’ve indulged myself this week not just by focusing on a court case that was decided in 2020 (and which arguably has no real Cape Breton connection unless your Cape Breton includes Mulgrave) but by following up all sorts of weird odds and ends connected to that case.

By way of explanation, I should tell you that I had two other stories planned for this week, but I wasn’t able to pull them together in time. And while waiting for information related to those other stories, I found myself reading the latest decision in Matthews v Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd and the next thing you know…

Next week, I’ll have those other two stories for you, but for now, I hope you’ll find this ONC/Royal DSM stuff as oddly fascinating as I do.


Royal DSM

Royal DSM, the company that paid $540 million for Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd (OCN) in 2012, describes itself as a “global purpose-led science-based company in Health, Nutrition & Bioscience, applying science to improve the health of people, animals and the planet.”

This description occurs in a March 2022 news release explaining how, to improve the health of people, animals and the planet, Royal DSM spent €25.5 million — CAN$35.4 million — repurchasing its own shares to cover “commitments for the final stock dividend 2021 and share based compensation plans.” There’s purpose for you.

(Also, note the repeated use of the word “science,” it will be worth remembering when we discuss the actual science around supplements.)

“DSM” stands for “Dutch State Mines,” the English translation of the company’s original name —  De Nederlandse Staatsmijnen — although, according to the company website, it now has a “more relevant (albeit less formal) meaning for our people: Doing Something Meaningful.” (Like buying back its own shares.)

Dutch State Mines

Dutch State Mines. The website I mentioned has an incredible photo gallery of old pictures. (Source

DSM was established in 1902 by the Dutch government to mine coal in the Southern Province of Limburg. (It remained state-owned until 1989, when the government sold 69% of its shares, selling off the remainder in 1997).The last mine closed in the early ’70s, but the company had diversified by then, moving into petrochemicals, although the potted history on its website tries to skip this period entirely:

We’ve always been an ambitious company. Our evolution has continued unabated after we closed the last coal mine in the early 70s. In the past 20 years we transformed once again, as we began to focus more on creating science-based solutions in health, nutrition and sustainable living.

Fortunately, there’s a website dedicated to the region and it offers more detail about the petrochemical period. Having been founded as a coal mining company:

Later on, the production of ammonia and fertilizers was added based on by-products that were released during the gasification of coal. In 1960 the Dutch coal mines achieved a record production of 23 million tons. However, the cost was higher than that of imported coal. In addition, a major gas discovery was made in Slochteren in Groningen.

This led to a government decision to close the coal mines. This was started in 1965 and the last mine was closed in 1973. In that year it was also decided to use the abbreviation DSM as a name from now on.

Sound familiar? From that point, DSM:

…expanded its chemical activities significantly. Initially there was a strong emphasis on bulk chemicals, but production shifted more towards end products such as plastics and industrial and fine chemicals. This shift ultimately resulted in the sale of the petrochemical activities in 2002 to the Saudi company SABIC.

In 2007, “DSM said goodbye to bulk chemicals altogether.” At that point, thanks in part to some acquisitions, its focus was “the food industry, the health sector, the automotive industry, paint and construction.” This past year, it sold off its materials business and now has three main units: health, nutrition and bioscience.



In his decision in Matthews v Ocean Nutrition Canada Limited, Justice Arthur LeBlanc noted that in October 2005, there was a “serious explosion” at ONC’s plant in Arcadia, Wisconsin. Two of the nine people in the plant the time were transported to hospital, treated for injuries and released. A brief newspaper account of the incident suggested the explosion might have been related to a spray dryer (a piece of equipment used in the microencapsulation process) and noted that OCN management were on site “attempting to make a determination as to the cause of the incident.”

A follow-up story from July 2006 explained that the sprayer had been completely destroyed, that ONC had had to contract out work while the equipment was being repaired and that the company had begun construction of a microencapsulation plant in Dartmouth to double its capacity. This story omitted any mention of an explosion, referring only to a fire, I took the phrase “serious explosion” from Justice LeBlanc’s account of events.

On 9 March 2009, there was “a serious fire” at OCN’s Mulgrave plant that resulted in damages of $1 million. The cause was eventually determined to have been “a lack of cleanliness in the pump shack.”

Co-CEO Message, DSM, 2021

Still from DSM video featuring co-CEOs Geraldine Matchett and Dimitri de Vreeze

I found both incidents surprising because, in my total ignorance of the processes involved in extracting omega-3s from fish oil and converting them into supplements, I hadn’t realized there could be a risk of explosion or fire, but perusing the Royal Doing Something Meaningful website, I realized occupational health and safety is a big deal.

Take the company’s 2021 annual report, which is presented online and includes this fabulous video of co-CEOs Geraldine Matchett and Dimitri de Vreeze, heating themselves up a big feed of fake meat and fish while discussing the year’s results. (It’s like the Food Network meets Bloomberg Business.)

The video is only 2.03 minutes long, but the creation of a “safer working environment” in 2021 merits a mention — and makes you wonder how unsafe the environment was previously. Digging deeper into the 2021 report, I found the “What Still Went Wrong in 2021” section which provided a list of “the most significant incidents” of 2021 — these included seven “incidents due to flash fires/explosions.”

DSM has a safety, health and environmental or SHE program. The 2016 annual report includes a description of how it was implemented at ONC’s plants that ends with this, presumably unintentionally damning-of-previous-management quote from Dave Elder, senior director of manufacturing:

It’s been a very interesting transition. We’ve moved from wanting to avoid accidents on site to actively managing our SHE performance so as to prevent potential incidents.

DSM Annual Report 2016 - dsm-annual-report-2016


While many of the injuries recounted in these “What Still Went Wrong” reports could have happened in pretty much any workplace — falls, injuries due to heavy lifting — there are moments when you realize a behemoth like DSM, with 20,000 employees in facilities all over the world, must deal with some rather specific dangers. Take this item from the 2020 report:

At DSM Nutritional Products in Ueberlandia (Brazil), an employee in the snake farm suffered a snake bite when checking with a stick on a snake that appeared to be dead, but was still alive.

Bothrops alternatus photographed in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, in January 2010.

Free-range Brazilian snake. Bothrops alternatus photographed in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, in January 2010. (Photo by Cláudio Timm, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)



The Waltons

I promised you a Walmart Waltons connection and here it is: Robert Orr (the erstwhile ONC board chair not the former Boston Bruin) left the company after the sale to DSM and, according to his LinkedIn profile, became a managing director at Cuna del Mar LP in May 2012.

Orr describes Cuna del Mar (which is Spanish for “cradle of the sea”) as:

Christy Walton

Christy Walton (Source: YouTube)

What he doesn’t mention is that Cuna del Mar is a family office founded by Christy Walton, widow of John Walton, whose father was Sam Walton. John Walton was one of those rich and powerful men who insist on flying their own planes, as the Associated Press explained at the time of his death in 2005:

…John Walton could have spent his entire life traveling around the globe on luxury jets. But the heir to the Wal-Mart fortune loved to tool around Wyoming in a cheap airplane built from a kit.

Walton died Monday at the age of 58 when the homemade experimental plane he was piloting crashed near the Jackson airport in Grand Teton National Park

Christy Walton ranked number 352 on the Forbes Billionaires List for 2021, with a fortune of $7.2 billion.

German patent

In November 2010, according Justice LeBlanc’s account in Matthews v Ocean Nutrition Canada Limited, ONC chemist Dave Matthews was asked to travel to Munich to assist the company’s manager of intellectual property in a lawsuit challenging a patent. The patent related to a process for the reduction of environmental contaminants – known as PCBs – from crude fish oil.

ONC was not successful in having the patent revoked and so, according to Matthews, when he returned to Nova Scotia he was asked to take over as lead of ONC’s PCB reduction efforts.

I include this for the glimpse it gives into this world of patents (and also because it hadn’t occurred to me to worry about PCBs in fish oil). It seems to me that people are always keen to protect their own intellectual property but care much less about that of other people. Having been unable to overturn the patent in question, ONC tasked Matthews with “finding ways that ONC could lawfully work around the patent.”

This involved working with the intellectual property manager who “used his regulation expertise to identify weaknesses or flaws in the patent and devise options for ONC to avoid infringing it.”



I don’t have the time (or the qualifications) to properly explore the science behind omega-3 fatty acids, but even a layperson like me can grasp a few key concepts (with a little help from the US National Institutes of Health:

Omega-3s (short for omega-3 fatty acids) are a kind of fat found in foods and in the human body.

The omega-3s EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are found in seafood (fish and shellfish).

A different type of omega-3, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), is found in certain plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils and also in some other foods of plant origin, such as chia seeds and black walnuts.

Close up vitamin D and Omega 3 fish oil capsules supplement on wooden plate for good brain , heart and health eating benefit

I can hear Michael Milburn’s voice in my head saying, “So eat fish — particularly sustainable types, like sardines — and flaxseed” and in fact, that’s what the NIH says. Your body can’t produce sufficient omega-3s on its own, but you can get adequate amounts of them by eating a variety of foods, including:

  • Fish and other seafood (especially cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines)
  • Nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts)
  • Plant oils (such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil)

The NIH, though, does allow that you can also consume “fortified foods,” meaning foods to which omega-3s have been added (this is DSM’s bread and butter, it provides the additives food manufacturers put in their products.).

The NIH offers this summary of the science on the effectiveness of omega-3s:

  • Research indicates that omega-3 supplements don’t reduce the risk of heart disease. However, people who eat seafood one to four times a week are less likely to die of heart disease.
  • High doses of omega-3s can reduce levels of triglycerides.*
  • Omega-3 supplements may help relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Omega-3 supplements have not been convincingly shown to slow the progression of the eye disease age-related macular degeneration.
  • For most other conditions for which omega-3 supplements have been studied, the evidence is inconclusive or doesn’t indicate that omega-3s are beneficial.

*There’s a caveat here which is that a number of prescription drugs containing omega-3s have been approved for people with high triglyceride levels, but these products are different from typical omega-3 supplements.

Compare that to the list of “lesser-known” benefits of omega-3s on the DSM website. Apparently citing scientific studies (the claims are footnoted but the footnotes are nowhere to be found), DSM lists optimizing immunity, muscle recovery, cardio-respiratory fitness, mood balance and improved sleep quality. The NIH addresses only one of these claims — mood balance — and it completely contradicts DSM, which states:

In a study in 2014, results showed that omega-3 supplementation helped women maintain a healthy mood after giving birth. [This is footnoted — No. 24 — but as noted, the footnotes aren’t included in the document]

While the NIH says:

Omega-3s have not been shown to relieve symptoms of depression that occur during pregnancy or after childbirth.

Meat and Fish Alternatives, DSM

Source: DSM website

There’s more on the research in this consumer fact sheet, but the bottom line is that you can get the omega-3s you need from your diet and most of the health claims made for supplements are just not backed by scientific evidence.

And reading about the effort and resources put into extracting the good from fish and flaxseed so it can be injected into things like non-dairy milk reminded me forcefully of my discussion with Milburn about fake meat, back in September 2019. DSM actually has a range of “solutions” for fake meat-makers:

For example, Maxavor® is our range of taste solutions that deliver convincing meat and fish flavor; while our hydrocolloids add juiciness and mouthfeel, without the fat. And when it comes to adding a nutrition boost look no further than CanolaPRO®: our nutritious, sustainable plant-derived protein isolate with excellent functional properties.

As Milburn said back in September 2019:

If you look at the plant-based burgers, for example, instead of using beans, which are one of the healthiest foods that you can eat, they take the beans apart in factories and they use the isolated proteins so you really don’t have any of the fiber or vitamins, minerals, anything — there’s nothing left in it at all, it’s just the protein, pure protein.

[And then] they use different kinds of fat. A lot of them use palm oil…but they tend to prefer canola oil, …then you have the coconut oil, a lot of them have gone with [that].

So…you have the protein on one hand and then you have the fat and then you need a matrix to put it in and so what do you choose? Well, essentially, cardboard…If you look at the ingredients, it’s called methyl cellulose…it’s basically cardboard. And then you need to give it some kind of color, so there’s some kind of coloring used, sometimes it might just be beet juice …And then you’re going to have to put flavoring in it of some kind…[S]o it’s a cardboard base with some fat and isolated protein and you know, you think about that — it’s an edible, food-like substance.


Payroll rebate

DSM, which does not seem to be hurting for funds, received payroll rebates worth $4 million from NSBI:

DSM-Nutritional-Rebate-1- Jun-1-20


And so…

I’ve just scratched the surface of a number of huge topics in this article and there are so many questions left unanswered — what is involved in “o

Maybe, the next time the stories I’ve planned for the week fall through, I’ll find out.