USDA reverses itself to allow organic seal on cosmetics

Wednesday, August 24th 2005, 1:37 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ 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.

The decision 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, attorney Joe Sandler said. Wednesday was the deadline for the department to respond to the lawsuit; the department requested an extension on Tuedsay, Sandler said.

The department also sent a memo out late Tuesday telling certifying agents that cosmetics and personal care products meeting government standards can carry the seal. The memo, from Barbara Robinson, head of the department's National Organic Program, did not give a reason for the reversal.

``If you have an agricultural product, and it meets the standards, and you get it certified, you can market it as organic,'' program spokeswoman Joan Shaffer said Wednesday.

The department is in the process of creating organic standards for fish and pet food. Still being decided is whether dietary supplements can use the seal.