Natural Foods Merchandiser

Bronner suit based on lack of federal standards

By Vicky Uhland

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which produces a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic line of personal care products, has sued 11 of its competitors and two certifiers for making "misleading organic labeling claims."

In a lawsuit filed April 28 in San Francisco Superior Court, All One God Faith, Inc., d/b/a/ Dr. Bronner's, charged that organic personal care products from Avalon Organics, Jason Natural Products, Nature's Gate, Ikove, Aveda, Juice Beauty, Head Organics, Stella McCartney's Care, Giovanni Cosmetics, Desert Essence and Kiss My Face don't comply with the USDA's National Organic Program regulations.

Although the NOP can apply to personal care, it's designed for agricultural products. There are no federal organic regulations specifically for personal care, but a growing number of nongovernmental groups are developing their own organic standards.

One of those groups, the Organic and Sustainable Industry Standard, a nonprofit trade association of 30 U.S. personal care manufacturers that plans to release organic standards in August, is also named in Bronner's lawsuit, along with the French organic certifier Ecocert.

The suit charges that Ecocert, OASIS and the manufacturers label products organic that are made with conventionally raised crops and are processed using petrochemicals.

"A company cannot say, 'Well, when we say 'organic soap,' what we mean is actually we are using petrochemical and nonorganic conventional material in all our major ingredients, but we have some organic botanical water extracts too,'" Bronner's president David Bronner said. "That doesn't fly under California law."

Bronner said the basis of his company's suit is "what the 'reasonable consumer' thinks your claim means, and we have done extensive survey research to show that reasonable organic consumers expect personal care products with outright organic label call-outs to have main ingredients based on organic material and to be free of petrochemical compounds."

According to the Associated Press, Ecocert has filed a lawsuit against All One God Faith essentially asking the judge to toss out Bronner's suit. The AP said Ecocert's suit charged that "Bronner threatened to drag [Ecocert] through the 'proverbial mud and to engage in widespread and negative publicity aimed at sullying' Ecocert if it refused to adopt more stringent certifying standards."

On May 1, Kiss My Face, Nature's Gate and The Hain-Celestial Group, which owns Avalon and Jason, released a statement noting that "the statements and claims advanced by Mr. David Bronner appear to be more about the lack of action by the government to settle the standards issues than about the products he mentions. We are confident that the allegations about our companies' products will be proved to be without merit."

According to the statement, all the manufacturers named are committed to improving personal-care industry standards. "We believe that collaboration and an open dialogue among industry participants, consumers and regulators, not litigation, is the best approach to developing meaningful organic personal-care product standards," said Bob MacLeod, CEO of Kiss My Face.

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