The government is reversing its decision to yank the “USDA Organic” seal from lotions and lip balms and will now allow cosmetics to carry the round, green label.
An organic soap company and a consumer group had sued the Agriculture Department for ordering removal of the distinctive seal.
Without the government seal, the word organic is “just a fluff marketing claim,” David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, said Wednesday.
“It’s kind of a truth in advertising thing — consumers can trust that it is indeed free of synthetics and does support organic farming and agriculture,” said Bronner, whose company and the Organic Consumers Association had sued the department in June.
The department created the label three years ago for food and other products grown without pesticides or fertilizer and made with all-natural, chemical-free ingredients. It applies to meat and dairy products from animals given organic feed and access to the outdoors and never given antibiotics or growth hormones.
Department officials decided in April they didn’t have the authority to regulate cosmetics and ordered companies to remove the USDA seal. Late Tuesday, one day before a deadline to respond to the lawsuit, the department issued a memo reversing its decision.
Barbara Robinson, head of the department’s National Organic Program, said officials have struggled over the issue, particularly because the program is still new.
“We’re USDA. We’re looking at it from an agricultural perspective — we do agricultural products here. We do food,” Robinson said in an interview. “We don’t do cosmetics here. We’re not lipstick. We’re not mouthwash. We’re not lawn care products. It takes a while to sit down and look at this and say, all right, how do we make this work?”
In the end, officials determined that it doesn’t matter what type of product is labeled, as long as it follows the rules. In other words, Robinson said, “What difference does it make if you brush your teeth with it or eat it?”
The reversal also allows dietary supplements and pet food to carry the organic seal. The department is in the process of creating organic standards for fish.
The decision to remove the seal from cosmetics had frustrated companies that, like Bronner’s, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to find all-organic ingredients and get certified to use the seal. Only products cleared by government-authorized agents can use the seal.
Legal liability was also at stake: Some organic cosmetic companies have been sued for deceptive labeling because they bore the claim.
Now it should be clear that, “just like food, the federal standards pre-empt any state laws, and if you meet federal standards, the product is organic,” said William J. Friedman, an attorney defending the companies in state courts.
Bronner and the consumer group expect to drop the lawsuit against the department pending settlement talks over the next month, said attorney Joe Sandler, who is representing Bronner and the consumer group.
The department still must comply with a federal court ruling this year in another lawsuit, filed by organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey in Maine, and draw up new rules on whether small amounts of non-organic or synthetic substances can go into organic food. The new rules will also govern feed for dairy cows.