Making sure that people in the organic industry are on their toes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did another about-face regarding the National Organic Program. A memorandum issued Aug. 23 stated that "irrespective of the end use" of a product, the NOP organic seal may be used if all standards for organic agricultural products are met. Previously, in a late April posting, USDA issued policy statements that excluded such nonfood items as personal care, supplements and pet foods. Those policy statements had been intended to clarify directives issued—and withdrawn—in 2004.
Hence the suit that Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps/Dr. Bronner's and Sun Dog's Magic filed, along with the Organic Consumers Association, against the USDA to get some clarity on what can and cannot use the organic seal.
Dr. Bronner?s had stated in early June that the company would continue to use the organic seal on its products that met the NOP food-standard benchmarks. On June 14, the company and the OCA filed the lawsuit to preserve the right for nonfood items to use the organic seal, as set out in a May 2002 policy statement and in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The groups said the complaint would most likely be withdrawn following settlement talks.
"Thanks to USDA's wise decision, brands … that support organic agriculture and farmers with all the integrity the National Organic Program intends can continue to display the USDA organic seal," said David Bronner, president of Bronner's/Sun Dog. "It's huge. We really didn't expect the policy to be clarified so quickly and so rightly."
Adam Eidinger, Washington, D.C., representative of the OCA, said that the memorandum is a victory for organic consumers: "We're really back on track here to creating higher-quality organic products. That?s great news."
Organic industry lawyer and consultant Loren Israelson said the USDA's newest missive should put to rest questions of organic seal use for some time. "Some sanity has returned to USDA. I read the memo to basically say any product that is a consumable product—dietary supplements, cosmetics, other products as well—fall within the program, as I think everybody believed all along. Somehow USDA took a bad road," he said. "To me, the fundamental premise is to encourage the broadest economic incentives and consumer usage of organic products."
"We're very happy that the USDA has responded to the pressure of the organic community and has decided to recognize the organic certification of body care companies and also other nonfood companies, like pet food companies and herbal supplements. This will help consumers in the marketplace differentiate the most high-quality organic products," said Ronnie Cummins, OCA founder and national director. "The most important thing is it's going to raise the bar in these consumer product areas just at a time when major corporations are getting into organics. They're going to have to play by some strict rules if they're going to market their products as organic."
As for the future, Israelson said that the Bronner/OCA lawsuit could have an unintended but beneficial result for the future: familiarity. "Maybe all sides learned a lesson and, hopefully, it doesn't turn back to litigation. These people now know each other—better than they probably ever planned on knowing each other—and yet, because of that I?m hoping that from now on it?s a phone call, it's a meeting, to quickly sort [problems] out."
The next step, Bronner says, is to get back to the process of creating official standards for the entire personal care category. "That's where that NOP certification, that third-party authentication, is so critical. It's a truth-in-advertising program for consumers. It's critical that we preserve that NOP status for personal care; otherwise, it can become a free-for-all," he said. "This is a real important step in the right direction. Now we just have to get to the next level, which is comprehensive regulation of organic claims in cosmetics."