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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/7/2010 1:18:39 PM ET 2010-04-07T17:18:39

Organic products, from oranges to shampoo, normally cost more than their conventional counterparts. Despite this price difference, many people are willing to pay more for products they believe are better for both them and the earth.

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You can generally trust organic label claims on food products when you see the Department of Agriculture’s “USDA Organic” symbol.

But consumer groups warn that when it comes to organic cosmetics and personal care products, you may not get what you expect.

“It’s the Wild West out there,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Organization. “We want consumers to be able to trust the organic claim on a cosmetic product and not have a bunch of snake oil salesmen out there claiming to be organic when they are not.”

At Consumers Union, Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy, describes the marketplace as a “free for all” where cosmetics that “contain loads of synthetic ingredients” are called organic.

Right now, as long as the manufacturer does not use the “USDA Organic” logo, these claims do not have to be verified or certified.

“We’ve seen products that claim to be organic that don’t have one single organic ingredient in them,” Rangan says. “We’ve seen companies call themselves organic in their brand name and yet they are not certified as organic.”

Consumer groups believe USDA has jurisdiction in this area. They have repeatedly asked the department to require personal care products making the “organic” claim to meet the same standards as organic food. But so far, USDA has refused.

Billy Cox, the director of public affairs at the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service says the agency is currently “evaluating” organic labeling on personal care products. But for now, USDA has decided:

  • It has no authority over the production and labeling of cosmetics, body care products and personal care products that are not made up of agricultural ingredients, or do not make any claims about meeting USDA organic standards.
  • Cosmetics, body care products and personal care products may be certified to other, private standards and marketed to those private standards in the U.S.

Frustrated by USDA’s refusal to more vigorously regulate these products, Consumers Union and the Organic Consumers Organization are trying a different tactic. Last month, they petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to investigate what they call “the widespread and misleading” use of organic claims on personal care products.

“We feel this is an unfair and deceptive business practice in the marketplace and as such the Federal Trade Commission has jurisdiction,” Rangan tells me.

The petition says organic personal care products that do not meet USDA standards can contain petroleum-derived ingredients, conventional agricultural ingredients that have been treated with pesticides, preservatives and unnatural colorings or fragrances.

The Federal Trade Commission has responded to the petition by saying it will “consider carefully” the information provided.

I think it’s fair to say the makers of personal care products don’t see what all the fuss is about. They say the USDA’s regulations are intended to deal with food and not face creams. They want organic rules geared toward their industry.

“We absolutely agree that these claims must be substantiated,” says Farah Ahmed, with the Personal Care Products Council

But the cosmetic industry does not want the term organic limited to the USDA’s definition. They say that would stifle innovation and limit customer choice, without promoting organic farming.

Manufacturers are very comfortable with organic certification programs run by third-party companies such as Ecocert, NSF and Cosmebio.

Ahmed maintains that as long as the organic claim is “substantiated, truthful and not misleading” the customer benefits. “The informed organic shopper, the informed Whole Foods shopper, they generally know what they’re looking for.”

It’s interesting to note that Whole Foods Market supports the development of a federal standard for organic personal care products. Why? The company believes this will reduce customer confusion.

“We think consumers want and expect the same definition for organic from personal care products as they are used to with food,” spokesperson Libba Letton said. “Our customers don’t want to think of a different standard when they’re going from one side of the grocery store to the other buying organic products.”

In fact, while it waits for government action, Whole Foods is working with its suppliers to develop some basic standards for organic cosmetics — standards based on the USDA definition of organic food.

My two cents
When it comes to cosmetics, it truly is a “buyer beware” marketplace. Consumers Union says don’t pay more for an organic claim on a personal care product unless you see the USDA organic seal. That is your only assurance the product meets the same standards as organic food.

If you see a product that’s labeled organic but it doesn’t have the USDA Organic seal, do your homework. Check the ingredients and decide whether this product meets your expectations of organic.

Of course, this is only a short term solution. There needs to be a federal definition for organic as it applies to non-food items and it needs to be enforced by the federal government. Private certification companies are fine, as long as use they that federal standard and are audited for compliance.

Shoppers should not have to be chemists to buy a body lotion, lip gloss or shampoo they believe is better for them and the planet.

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