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FTC and USDA ask: Do consumers understand organic claims for non-food products?

Ivan Wasserman New Hope

You label personal care or other household products as “organic.” You truly believe in the value of organic products, and your products in particular, and more than anything you value your customers. But have you ever wondered if your customers understand what an organic claim on the label actually means? Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, but we know that that the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Department of Agriculture have and continue to think about it.

On Oct. 20, the FTC and USDA will co-host a public roundtable in Washington, DC, on how consumers perceive these organic claims. At the roundtable, panelists will discuss the following topics:

  • Consumers’ interpretations of “organic” claims for products and services that generally fall outside the scope of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s National Organic Program.
  • A recent FTC-USDA survey on organic claims, including its methods, limitations and conclusions.
  • Approaches to address potential deception, including consumer education.

The roundtable follows a consumer survey conducted by USDA/FTC in 2015. The survey asked consumers about organic products (shampoos, mattresses or dry cleaning services) that contained small percentages (less than 1 percent; 1 percent to 5 percent; and 5 percent to 10 percent) of materials "made by a man-made, chemical process." The survey found that a significant minority of respondents disagreed that the organic claims accurately describe the products. Telling them that the non-organic materials in the product "pose no health or safety hazard" did not significantly change their views.

The survey also found that about 35 percent of respondents believed that organic claims for shampoos or mattresses imply that the product meets some government standard, and about 30 percent of respondents believed that USDA certifies organic claims for these products. Importantly, the government noted that the survey did not evaluate the term "USDA Organic." Therefore, the survey should not be applied to the USDA label, which consumers "may interpret very differently from the claims presented in the survey."

The roundtable is free and open to the public. If you cannot make it to DC, it will also be webcast here.


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