USDA To Allow 'Organic' Label on Cosmetics

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and other natural-cosmetics companies have won their fight against the government for the right to stamp the "USDA Organic" label on lip balms and body lotions.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and other natural-cosmetics companies have won their fight against the government for the right to stamp the "USDA Organic" label on lip balms and body lotions.

The Escondido company and an organic-products trade group sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in June after the agency directed organic-cosmetics companies to pull the distinctive green seal from packaging.

But in a memorandum issued this week, the USDA changed its stance and said that cosmetics and other personal-care goods that are certified under National Organic Program standards can carry the government designation.

Claims by companies that their products are organic are "rampant" and "don't mean anything unless they have the USDA label" on packaging, said David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's.

Bronner said his company spent about $100,000 and two years of planning to bring its lines of Dr. Bronner's & Sun Dog's Magic lip balms, body balms and body lotions into NOP compliance.

The products, which were launched in February, are carried by more than 100 natural-product stores across the country.

In 2000, the government announced standards for the production of organic produce and meat, after 10 years of wrangling among health advocates, agricultural interests, chemical companies and biotechnology firms.

The green, round "USDA Organic" seal made its debut in 2002.

Under the rules, producers of organic food and other products are prohibited from using genetic engineering, sewage sludge or pesticides.

Moreover, antibiotics are banned in organic chicken, beef and other meat, and organic dairy ranchers are required to give cattle access to open land.

In April, the USDA told companies like Dr. Bronner's that their cosmetic goods could not carry the agency's authoritative label.

But on the eve of a deadline requiring the USDA's response to the legal complaint by Dr. Bronner's and the Organic Consumers Association, the USDA reversed itself and said that NOP-certified products could carry the label.

Barbara Robinson, head of the department's National Organic Program, said officials have struggled over the issue, particularly because the program is new.

"We're USDA. We're looking at it from an agricultural perspective. We do agricultural products here. We do food," Robinson said. "We don't do cosmetics here. We're not lipstick. We're not mouthwash. We're not lawn-care products. It takes a while to sit down and look at this and say, all right, how do we make this work?"

In the end, officials determined that it doesn't matter what type of product is labeled, as long as it follows the rules.

In other words, Robinson said, "What difference does it make if you brush your teeth with it or eat it?"

The battle also involved issues of legal liability because some organic- cosmetic companies have been sued for deceptive labeling because they bore the organic claim.

Now it should be clear that "just like food, the federal standards pre-empt any state laws, and if you meet federal standards, the product is organic," said William J. Friedman, an attorney defending the companies in state courts.

Adam Eidinger, a spokesman for the Organic Consumers Association, said its complaint against the USDA is likely to be dropped after settlement talks in the next 30 days.

The department still must comply with a federal court ruling this year in another lawsuit, filed by organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey in Maine, and draw up new rules on whether small amounts of non-organic or synthetic substances can go into organic food. The new rules will also govern feed for dairy cows.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News