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Organic dilemma: What rules personal care?

Mitchell Clute

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Organic dilemma: What rules personal care?

Since the passage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards four years ago, natural personal care manufacturers have struggled to define the requirements for organic labeling on their products. Because the National Organic Program only regulates foods, there is no national standard for personal care products to follow. Two recent efforts seek to change that.

The Organic Trade Association's personal care task force, formed shortly after the implementation of the NOP, is preparing to release for comment its draft document on organic labeling.

OTA is also participating in a new initiative by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International to develop, with the American National Standards Institute, a benchmark for organic personal care products. NSF's decision to create an industry standard was prompted by directives the USDA issued last April, which declared that personal care products could no longer use the USDA organic label, even if they met all the organic rule's requirements for food labeling. Though USDA later rescinded the directives, they came as a wake-up call to the industry.

"Originally, NOP said that any nonfood product that complies with the organic rule can invest in the whole compliance and labeling program," says David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap of Escondido, Calif. "Rather than trying to address the abuse of the word organic, they just decided to shut out people who were actually doing it right." NSF's establishment of an ANSI standard—developed by representatives of the industry, regulatory and consumer sectors—could serve as the blueprint for an eventual federal regulation on organic personal care.

The OTA task force, consisting of manufacturers, suppliers, certifiers, growers and other industry members, was established to create a voluntary standard for acceptable ingredients and manufacturing processes in personal care products labeled either "organic" or "made with organic ingredients."

"When the organic rule was passed, USDA said that it didn't have authority over finished products in the personal care sector regarding the use of the word organic," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of OTA, based in Greenfield, Mass. "We worked to create an industry consensus on organic ingredients and processes, and the first draft of a set of standards is now ready to present to the task force for review."

OTA's task force examined virtually every process used in personal care products to determine whether it would be acceptable in products labeled organic. "Hydrogenation, hydrogenolysis, sulfation, alkylation, esterification, transesterification, hydrolysis—we looked at all these processes," DiMatteo says. "Would they be acceptable for products labeled ‘organic,' or only for products labeled ‘made with organic ingredients'? What do these processes do to the raw materials? What levels of change are acceptable in what labeling categories? The task force allowed many of these processes for products labeled ‘made with organic ingredients,' but only a handful for products labeled ‘organic.'"

Hundreds of individual ingredients also had to be examined. "We went through all the ingredients, including petroleums and synthetic colorants, fragrances and flavors," DiMatteo says. In some cases, whole categories of ingredients were prohibited, including all petroleum-derived ingredients and all formaldehyde donors.

Among the banned petroleum byproducts are parabens, used for preserving products. Recent research has linked parabens to breast cancer, and a number of natural personal care companies have already phased them out of most or all of their formulations.

"It has been difficult to reformulate to get the extended shelf life parabens offer, but our new preservatives are safer," says Angella Green, associate brand manager for Culver City, Calif.-based Jason Natural Cosmetics. "We've actually been following the standards set up by USDA when the organics rule came out, using their list of acceptable preservatives—grapefruit seed extract, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate and benzyl alcohol."

"Preservatives in general are a red flag for natural products consumers," says Tim Schaeffer, brand manager for Petaluma, Calif.-based Avalon Natural Products. "I make a distinction between hard and soft preservatives. Hard preservatives include the parabens and diazolidinyl urea, which creates formaldehyde over time. Probably by mid-2005, we'll have parabens out of all our products."

Pthalates are another controversial ingredient in natural personal care. Pthalates, used in cosmetics to keep products like nail polish flexible, mimic estrogen in the body and can cause hormonal imbalance. "Pthalates are reproductive toxins and are associated with birth defects in children and low sperm counts in men," says Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., executive director of The Breast Cancer Fund. The organization, based in San Francisco, has organized a safe cosmetics campaign to bring attention to dangerous ingredients in personal care products. "Companies that are ahead of the curve on this are going to have a tremendous advantage," Rizzo says. "People aren't going to want their kids exposed to these ingredients." Pthalates are banned in Europe under a new European Union directive on personal care ingredients and will also be disallowed in OTA's voluntary organic labeling program.

Bronner sees other issues that any regulatory document must address, whether the standards are those in the OTA draft document or in whatever ANSI standard NSF eventually creates. "We're particularly annoyed with the practice of putting ‘organic' in a brand name, which represents that the product or brand is organic, even though it's not in compliance with NOP regulations," Bronner says.

After comment, the OTA task force recommendations will go before the OTA board for approval and eventually become part of OTA's voluntary American Organic Standard. But many industry insiders believe that USDA may eventually feel compelled to issue a separate regulation for organic personal care. "This will form the basis of what we might lobby for if we were to bring it to a government level," DiMatteo says.

ANSI standards have frequently been used as the basis for future governmental regulation. OTA's representation on NSF's new ANSI standards committee will ensure that the industry's own ideas about what constitutes an organic product will be heard, DiMatteo says.

But Bronner isn't sure that USDA needs to issue a new regulation solely for personal care. "The current NOP could be rewritten to reasonably accommodate personal care with just a few additional lines of text," he says. "That would be my preference, though others are in favor of either a more substantive rewriting of the NOP or the formation of a private certification program outside NOP, whether that's done by OTA or NSF."

It may be months before the OTA regulations are finalized, and years before NSF develops its voluntary consensus standards. NSF has not yet named its committee, though an initial meeting to form the committee took place in September. Until industry-wide standards are adopted, retailers may want to read the ingredients deck carefully and ask manufacturers about their own standards for organic labeling. For the time being, not all organic personal care products are created equal.

Mitchell Clute is a free-lance writer, poet and musician in Crestone, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 2/p. 36

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