In 2009, U.S. consumers bought $7.8 billion worth of personal care products that claimed to be either natural or organic, according to Nutrition Business Journal. But who’s to say which soaps, lotions and other body care products qualify as natural or organic? Here’s a look at the latest industry attempts to define the terms.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program has long been held as the gold standard. “These are the toughest standards anywhere and most realistically represent the generally understood definitions of what an organic product actually is,” says Larry Plesent, CEO of Middlebury, Vt.-based Vermont Soap Organics. But the USDA is embroiled in a dispute over whether it is—or even should be—effectively enforcing use of the term organic on personal care products.
Many personal care manufacturers use the term “organic” in their names or on their labels, even if their products are not USDA certified organic. In March 2010, the Finland, Minn.-based Organic Consumers Association and Yonkers, NY-based Consumers Union filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, charging that USDA’s enforcement of the term “organic” is inconsistent between food and personal care. That same month, NOP staff went to Natural Products Expo West and discovered that among 26 personal care exhibitors, only six were USDA certified, though 14 used the term “organic” in their names or on their labels.
In April, Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator for the NOP, sent a memo to the chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, stating that the NOP would: collaborate with FDA and FTC “to understand the issues associated with use of the term ‘organic’ in personal care … to have a comprehensive approach that aligns with each respective agencies [sic] mission and regulations;” begin gathering information regarding the labeling of personal care products in the marketplace; and “consider the recommendations of the NOSB on rulemaking and take them under advisement for future incorporation.”
Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for OCA, says that as of August 2010, neither the FTC nor the USDA has replied to the complaint. And Amarjit Sahota, director of the UK-based research company Organic Monitor, says that despite these pressures, “our company does not expect any changes or developments [from USDA] in the foreseeable future.”
Joe Smillie, senior vice president at QAI, a USDA certifier, tends to agree. “Organic in the USA is defined and basically owned by the USDA,” he said during a recent webinar. “The USDA originally said the term ‘organic’ and the USDA seal could not be used for personal care products. Then in August 2005 … they said they could be certified under the NOP and use the seal … In April 2008 the Food and Drug Administration said they do not define the term ‘organic.’” But cosmetics and personal care products are under the jurisdiction of FDA, not USDA, according ot Smillie, so FDA will be involved.
“The market is moving a lot faster than USDA is, and consumers want action now,” says Smillie, senior vice president at QAI, a USDA organic certifier.
The Cosmetics Organic Standard, or Cosmos, reflects an attempt by some of Europe’s leading certification bodies—such as The Soil Association, Ecocert and BDIH—to harmonize organic standards globally. “To make some of the cleaning cosmetics [like soap and shampoos], as opposed to the pampering cosmetics [like moisturizers and makeup], there needs to be chemical modification of the agricultural ingredients, and, of course, that’s not acceptable under NOP standards, so it leaves a big gap. What we’re trying to do with the Cosmos standard is fill that gap,” says Francis Blake, chairman of the Cosmos standard board. To get Cosmos-Organic certification, 95 percent of a product’s agro-ingredients and 20 percent of the entire product must be organic. Products must also meet environmental standards for packaging and manufacturing, and use approved “green chemistry” processes when modifying ingredients. Blake expects the first Cosmos-certified products to hit store shelves by December.
NSF/ANSI 305, introduced in March 2010, allows a “contains organic ingredients” claim for products with at least 70 percent organic content. It adheres to most NOP rules, but permits certain botano-chemical processes that wouldn’t be allowed for food products because they would be judged as synthetic, such as esterification—which improves product absorption and texture—and hydrogenation—which makes a product shelf-stable. In March, QAI announced an agreement that would allow products certified to NSF/ANSI 305 in the U.S. to also carry NaTrue certification in Europe. QAI General Manager Jackie Bowen says she expects 200 more than the current handful of products to achieve NSF/ANSI certification in the next few months, as manufacturers reformulate to meet the requirements.
Right now, “natural” can mean anything the company wants it to mean. Some organizations are using certifications to define the term as it applies to personal care.
The Natural Products Association released its Natural Standard for Personal Care in 2008. “USDA is more concerned with agriculture; our standard is focused on the finished product” by looking at both sourcing and processing of ingredients, says Cara Welch, PhD, scientific and regulatory affairs manager for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. The standard has always required that 95 percent of the ingredients be natural; earlier this year, NPA announced it would now require all fragrances used in certified products to be natural, which means no parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate, petrolatum/mineral oil/paraffin, chemical sunscreens, glycols and more. In addition, ingredients in NPA-certified products must be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, renewable and found in nature. And at least 60 percent of a company's personal care product line must be natural products even if it is seeking certification for just one product. “The 60 percent requirement is specifically to avoid any aspect of ‘greenwashing’ a product line,” Welch says. “We want to be sure companies are committed to providing a truly natural product line—not just making one natural product in a line of conventional products and associating the [seal] with the entire line.” “In 2009, there were 13,000 products that claimed to be natural,” Welch says. “The NPA seal has been third-party audited to show [that compliant products] are truly natural.”
Similar to the NPA standard, Cosmos-Natural standard doesn’t require a minimum level of organic ingredients, and it doesn’t specify how it determines what’s natural, but the standard won’t permit parabens, phthalates or genetically modified ingredients.
Retailers push the standards
In 2009, Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets said it would no longer carry products that didn’t comply with NPA’s natural personal care standard. “We gave manufacturers time to reformulate, and we’re getting ready to discontinue and replace some lines,” says Wendy McLain, health and beauty aids merchandiser.
In June, Whole Foods Market announced that any products using the word organic must be USDA-certified within a year. “I think most mislabeled lines are going to change their names,” McClain says. “They’re not going to risk not being in Whole Foods.”
In September, the National Cooperative Grocers Association, a business services cooperative for 114 natural food co-ops, announced a similar initiative. It asked that all its vendors making organic claims to submit a plan by Oct. 18, outlining how they will bring their products into compliance with either NOP or NSF/ANSI 305 standards. Beginning in March 2011, the NCGA will promote only products from manufacturers that have followed this procedure. And beginning in June 2011, the NCGA will promote only products that have achieved the certification.
“Our company expects third-party standards to become the norm for natural and organic food retailers,” says Sahota of the Organic Monitor. “It will become very rare to find non-certified personal care products in these retailers in a few years.”
Laurie Budgar is a freelance writer who is certifiable—oops, certified—as a nut for natural and organic body care.