'Organic' soap, shampoo manufacturers under pressure to back up claim

womanshampooing her hairSoap, shampoo and make-up marketed as organic may soon have to back up the claim on labels in the same fashion as food carrying the USDA Organic seal.

The Organic Consumers Association, a consumer advocacy group, has spearheaded a campaign to strip grocery aisles of products mislabeled as organic. It has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to investigate and take action on what it calls "pervasive," "egregious" and "blatantly deceptive" use of the word organic.

Synthetic- and petroleum-based formulations of some conventional products can release hidden toxins that don't appear on the "organic" label, the group says.

"If a product doesn't have the USDA seal, the only way for consumers to find out whether something is organic is by reading the ingredients list," said Alexis Baden-Mayer, a spokeswoman for the OCA. "But even then it's hard to tell whether the ingredients are synthetic or vegetable-derived. As a consumer, you'll never know if there's a toxin in the product."

Baden-Mayer said one of the brands the OCA named in its letter, Kiss My Face, dropped the "Obsessively Organic" tagline in its advertising, substituting the word "natural." But she suggested the company may need to do more. "I'm hesitant to congratulate any company just yet. A lot of them have decided to change the 'organic' marketing to 'natural,' instead of changing the formula. That will be the next step."

The USDA doesn't have the authority to police organic claims on items such as shampoo, soap and make-up because it doesn't control personal-care products the same way it does food. Its current policy is that such products can be certified to meet the standards of the National Organic Program, but such certification is not mandatory for non-food items.

Whole Foods Market, the nation's largest natural products retailer, is the first to require uniform certification for both food and non-food organic items. It recently announced soap, shampoo and other products making organic claims in its U.S stores must meet NOP standards by June 2011.

"At Whole Foods Market, our shoppers do not expect the definition of organic to change substantially between the food and non-food aisles of our stores," said Joe Dickson, a company spokesman, in a statement.

The OCA is planning to send letters to other major natural product retailers, such as Trader Joe's and the National Cooperative Grovers Association, which represents more than 100 natural product retailers in the U.S. asking them to cease organic fraud in their stores. The organization will publish each store's response on its web site so consumers can see which companies stand up for organic integrity.

Over 600 organic business have already signed on to ensure fair labeling by cosmetics and body care brands.
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