Natural Foods Merchandiser

PC products take on organic challenge

Only a couple of years ago, personal care companies had to fight for their right to put the U.S. Department of Agriculture's certified organic label on their lotions and creams. Now it seems the market is poised to bubble over with products sporting the iconic green organic seal, particularly with major naturals players like Nature's Gate releasing their own lines of certified organic body lotions.

Personal care manufacturers are showing more interest in learning what it takes to get the organic industry's most recognizable label, says David Abney, general manager with San Diego-based Quality Assurance International, one of the nation's largest organic certifiers. "We're fielding more and more calls from personal care companies that do want to get that type of certification. They want to go that extra mile and make sure they're 100 percent compliant with the regulation," Abney says.

A few companies have gone that extra mile almost since the time the USDA's National Organic Program launched in 2002. Sensibility Soaps, for instance, is generally recognized as one of the first companies with a certified-organic line of personal care products. The Beaver Falls, Pa.-based manufacturer launched its Nourish line in 2003, with 21 SKUs that all displayed the USDA seal.

Being first wasn't necessarily the company's goal, but it was an important achievement, says Lynn Betz, co-founder and president of Sensibility Soaps. "It was something that we wanted to do and we worked hard to accomplish. Believe me: It's very, very challenging, and that's why very few companies have the seal on products, because only the food standards exist."

Betz says it took about two years to formulate a USDA certifiable product line, requiring the devotion of two chemists. Today Sensibility Soaps has upwards of 60 organic products.

The most obvious obstacle to certification is that personal care companies have to work within the bounds of the NOP standards, which were written specifically for food. Traditional emulsifiers and preservatives are not acceptable because manufacturers are restricted to using food ingredients. "That really makes it a challenge, because of needing to assure that the product is stable and … able to be used without having any issue of contamination," Betz explains. "You're almost dealing with food science versus cosmetic science."

And the rules don't always stay the same. Changes to the NOP National List for nonorganic agricultural ingredients forced Sensibility Soaps to find new ways to keep some products certified, according to Betz. For example, NOP's section 606 used to allow manufacturers to source wild-crafted herbs that were not available organically, such as oak moss, as long as the product was at least 95 percent organic and used other approved ingredients for the 5 percent of wiggle room. Now rule 606 more stringently defines 38 nonorganic ingredients that are allowable. "We had to reformulate a number of our products to stay in compliance now with rule 606," Betz says.

The USDA attempted to throw up an even bigger barrier to personal care companies in 2005 when it yanked the organic seal for nonfood products. Companies like Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap and Sensibility Soaps teamed up with industry organizations to file suit in federal court to force the USDA to change its stance. The agency relented on the eve of a deadline requiring the NOP to respond to a federal court complaint.

David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, based in Escondido, Calif., hasn't relented in his own campaign to clean up the personal care industry. Dr. Bronner's is involved in various efforts to establish a natural personal care standard that would help ensure personal care companies touting themselves as natural and organic aren't filling their bottles with synthetic chemicals. Such a standard would complement the NOP and serve as a secondary level for natural ingredients that the organic program doesn't allow, he says.

The USDA seal tops anything else around the world when it comes to organic.

Bronner notes that countries like Germany have "straightforward" standards that require natural personal care products to be free of synthetics and petroleum-based ingredients. "In general, the personal care aisle in your average American health food store is not close to a German health food store" for nonsynthetic products.

While Europe may be more progressive in defining natural personal care, the USDA seal in the United States tops anything else around the world when it comes to organic, Betz says. "The USDA 95 to 100 percent organic standards are the gold standard," she says. Groups like Soil Association and Ecocert in Europe have much less stringent standards, she notes, while Australia's voluntary rules permit ingredients that are prohibited under the NOP.

Purists like Diana Kaye, co-founder of Terressentials, a small Middletown, Md.-based personal care company, say that the NOP is the only standard that natural and organic companies should follow. She sees the move to create a second tier for naturals as a way to only further confuse consumers and dilute the meaning of the organic label.

"Why would we want a certifier who is certifying competing products to a lesser standard—certifying us to the NOP and then certifying these other products?" she asks, arguing that the marketplace is already filled with companies whose products lay claim to organic ingredients that also contain synthetics and petro-based chemicals.

Kaye maintains the NOP standards are not difficult to meet. She admits formulas must adapt for variations in using natural and organic ingredients, like cocoa butter, which may be creamy and white in one shipment, and then hard and as dark yellow as beeswax in the next. "We've learned over the years that producing artisan products means that you're constantly adjusting and tweaking to deal with the perfectly wonderful naturalness of certified organic raw materials."

Abney says certifiers apply the same process to both food and nonfood manufacturers. He explains that once a manufacturer submits its formulations to QAI, the company performs a "desk audit" of the organic compliance plan, and if it looks good, an auditor will make a site visit. QAI then conducts a technical review and either notifies the applicant of any noncompliance issues or grants certification. The whole process can take one to three months, Abney says. Certified products must still undergo an annual review after initial certification to ensure a manufacturer continues to comply with NOP standards.

"There's a lot to look at even in an annual renewal," Abney says.

Despite all the hurdles, Bronner says the process is worthwhile. In fact, his company will launch in March what he calls the first line of certified organic rinse-off products—pump soaps, shaving gels, and body and hand wash. "With rinse-off products and soaps, it's more difficult to get to that 95 [percent organic level], but we figured it out with some really nice formulations," he says. "It's kind of proving that it's possible to stay within the USDA organic guidelines."

Peter Rejcek is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p. 34,37

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