Prepared Foods June 6, 2005 enewsletter

The Agriculture Department is taking its round, green "USDA Organic" label off personal care products and cosmetics, but at the same time, the move will eliminate the labeling of such products as pet food, dietary supplements and fish.

When the seal was created in 2002, the primary intent was to certify the organic claims made by food producers, such as that meat came from animals raised without antibiotics and not confined indoors, or that vegetables were grown without pesticides.

However, the department also opened the door to making a wide range of other products eligible for the label: cosmetics and personal care items, pet food, dietary supplements, textiles like cotton T-shirts and fish.

"The feeling was, if your product was composed of agricultural ingredients, and you thought you could get certified, you were welcome to try," said Barbara Robinson, head of the department's National Organic Program.

Three years later, the department decided it had gone too far. In April, it began telling companies their cosmetics and other personal care products cannot be government-certified as organic, after all.

Fish and pet food are also off the table, but only for now. The department is creating task forces to make rules for certifying them. Still being decided is whether dietary supplements can use the seal.

The department's reversal is frustrating to companies that spent money and time to put the seal on their products. An Agriculture Department-authorized agent must certify a company before it can use the seal or label something "100% organic" or "organic."

David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, said his company spent $100,000 to ensure that his soaps, lotions and lip balms met the standards for using the seal.

Bronner said consumers are confused by the myriad products that claim to have "organic" or "natural" ingredients. The USDA seal guaranteed his products are free of chemicals and synthetic ingredients, he said.

"Everyone in the world's making an organic claim," Bronner said. "We're not doing tricks. We actually work really hard to make real, organic ingredients. The National Organic Program is what consumers trust."

Organic means a product contains all-natural, non-synthetic substances that are grown without using conventional pesticides or fertilizer, biotechnology or radiation. Furthermore, it means meat and dairy products have come from animals raised on organic feed, given access to the outdoors and never given antibiotics or growth hormones.

The Organic Consumers Association, to which Piersel belongs, is asking the Agriculture Department to take another look at removing its seal from personal care products.

The association says the reversal hurts small companies in particular, because the seal is part of a marketing program that gives them an edge.