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Organic Consumers Group Preparing Boycott Of Non-USDA-Certified 'Organic' Personal Care Products

[Editor's Note: Please visit OCA's Coming Clean Campaign page for more information.]

This fall the Organic Consumers Association intends to launch a boycott of personal-care products marketed as "organic" that lack a federal stamp of approval -- with some exceptions.

"We're starting right now to plan for a national public education [campaign] ... to get out the very simple message to consumers on a mass scale - because the mass media are going to pick up on this - [not to] trust any 'organic' personal-care products that lack the USDA seal," OCA Executive Director Ronnie Cummins told "The Rose Sheet" July 21.

"And if you want to know the products that do have the USDA seal or qualify for that, go to our Web page, we will list them all for you," he said. OCA recognizes that directing consumers to buy only products with the USDA seal is not a perfect system. Just ask Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. Currently OCA recognizes Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps on its Web site as a company with one or more body-care products that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic standards, and numerous Dr. Bronner's offerings are listed as safe options on the association's "Safety Guide" for personal-care shoppers.

Together Dr. Bronner's and OCA filed suit in 2008 against alleged organic "cheaters," competitors they claim are misleading consumers and creating an unfair business environment by marketing products as organic that contain cleansing agents and preservatives made from synthetic or petrochemical compounds (1 'The Rose Sheet' March 24, 2008).

While Dr. Bronner's and OCA generally share the same vision for the organic personal-care market, the latter's boycott -- if not effectively qualified -- could negatively impact Dr. Bronner's business.

Dr. Bronner's offers liquid and bar soaps that are certified to USDA's standards for products "Made with Organic Ingredients" -- which must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredient -- but do not qualify for "Organic" certification, which requires 95 percent organic ingredients at minimum. According to Dr. Bronner's President David Bronner, it is impossible to make bar soap that is 95 percent organic because the amount of sodium needed to saponify exceeds 5 percent. The company offers some liquid soaps that are certified to USDA's 95 percent "Organic" criteria, but its bar soaps all are "Made with Organic" under the NOP.

"Made with Organic" personal-care products are not permitted to wear the USDA seal on their packaging; therefore Bronner's bar soaps and classic liquid soaps would be among the products affected by an all-out boycott on non-USDA-sealed products.

In a July 22 e-mail, David Bronner told "The Rose Sheet" that "certainly there should be concern and accounting for the few instances of 'in-between' products/brands whose main cleansing and moisturizing ingredients are in fact made from organic material but don't/can't bear the USDA organic seal." In fact OCA is prepared to make exceptions. The group intends to balance its boycott with a "buycott" of what it deems to be legitimately organic body-care products.

The "buy" list will include not only products that bear the USDA "Organic" seal, but items that meet the department's "Made with Organic" standards as well as products compliant with NSF International's standard for products containing organic materials.

OCA also will stand behind products from manufacturers that pledge to obtain certification to one of those schemes within a given timeframe. Body-care items that fall outside of those parameters will be subject to boycott.

"That's the only way we're going to catch the attention of the public and point out to them that in general you cannot trust the word 'organic' on the front panel of a personal-care product," Cummins said.

Taking "Coming Clean" National

OCA's first line of attack will be raising awareness through its Organic Bytes newsletter and via news alerts and petitions circulated on the Internet.

Cummins noted that the group already has an initiative under way "exposing the myth of so-called natural food," which in most cases is just a conventional product with a green veneer, it says.

Such goods are produced using pesticides, chemical fertilizer, hormones, genetic engineering and sewage sludge and then marketed on claims that are not certified or policed, according to OCA.

The group's Web site includes a page where visitors can e-mail Whole Foods Market and United Natural Foods Inc. "and tell them that you will buy only certified organic products for you and your family."

Cummins said the boycott of body-care products that refuse to "come clean" is "going to build on the rising tide of consciousness about the hoax of 'natural' [foods]."

The move represents a broadening of OCA's "Coming Clean" crusade seeking "organic integrity" in body-care products.

As part of that effort, the group has tested and exposed natural and organic products containing suspected carcinogen 1,4-dioxane (2 'The Rose Sheet' March 16, 2009).

Going forward OCA will distribute "buy" leaflets to consumers "that they can take to their retailers and say, 'Look, these are [certified] personal-care products. I don't see a lot of them in your store. Would you please get them, or should I start looking for another natural foods store that will get them?'"

"Once their customers start pressing them in large-enough numbers, they usually give in," Cummins added.

OCA has launched similar boycotts against Horizon and Aurora dairy products it claims are produced via substandard organic operations, encouraging consumers to pressure national grocery retailers, or the "Shameless Seven," that have ignored the boycott.

OCA Extends Second Warning

Cummins warned industry attendees of the All Things Organic Conference and Trade Show in Chicago June 16-18 that OCA was "tired of messing around" and was considering a boycott of body-care products (3 'The Rose Sheet' June 15, 2009).

The director says organic "imposters" will be given notice again at Natural Products Expo East, slated for Sept. 23-26 in Boston.

If the fall meeting of USDA's National Organic Standards Board to discuss "mislabeled" organic personal care does not result in "quick, decisive action," OCA will launch the boycott soon afterward, Cummins indicated.

"This blunt message will get out there," he said, "and I think it's going to force companies that are dragging their feet to reformulate, and I think it's going to force USDA to realize they have a problem."

The National Organic Standards Board met in May to address the "ever-increasing stream of cosmetic/personal-care products making organic claims continu[ing] to flow into the marketplace," as identified by its Certification, Accreditation and Compliance Committee.

The committee noted that USDA "is responsible for the product organic claims but is not currently enforcing this in the area of personal-care products." Cosmetics were uncomfortably lumped into the National Organic Program for food in 2005.

In an effort to bring order to the "Wild West" that is organic personal care, Dr. Bronner's urged NOSB not only to advise USDA to step up enforcement of its requirements for "Organic" products but also to establish and police "Made with Organic" standards specifically tailored to cosmetics (4 'The Rose Sheet' May 11, 2009).

President David Bronner recommended that USDA adopt NSF's standard for "Made with Organic" products, introduced in February, as its own model. NSF "Made With" Now "Containing Organic"

In fact NSF has met with USDA to discuss its standard -- "NSF/ANSI 305: Made with Organic Personal Care Products" -- and the department has requested that NSF "consider a title and reference modification."

According to NSF, staffers "expressed concern about potential confusion with USDA policy and the legal implications of a private standard using the same labeling terminology as that defined within the NOP regulations" -- specifically the phrasing "Made with Organic."

NSF says it will release a newly titled version of the standard -- "NSF/ANSI 305: Personal Care Products Containing Organic Ingredients" -- though the requirements laid out by the standard have not been changed.

Dr. Bronner's has characterized NSF/ANSI 305 as a responsible compromise between the "mainstream cosmetic industry and the organic consumer movement."

The Escondido, Calif. company previously said it was considering certifying its offerings to NSF's standard.

However, the company may now be backing away from the standard and the "Containing Organic Ingredients" language, which is "a weaker statement" than "Made with Organic," a Dr. Bronner's rep noted.

"We're already in the 'Made with' category under [USDA's] organic food standards. ... We don't need to go for this lower standard, which is a compromise," he said.

[Editor's Note: Please visit OCA's Coming Clean Campaign page for more information.]
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