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Organic Beauty Products Get a Lift With USDA About-Face

by Roger Vincent, Times Staff WriterLos Angeles Times
August 25th, 2005

Turns out there is such a thing as organic lip balm after all.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reversed its decision to yank the "USDA Organic" seal from lotions and lip balms and will allow cosmetics to carry the prestigious round, green label.

Having the USDA imprimatur is essential for a product to stand out on store shelves crowded with allegedly organic merchandise, said David Bronner, president of Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap.

"lt's really the only way to distinguish ourselves from the rampant, misleading claims" of others, said Bronner, whose company and the Organic Consumers Assn. sued the department in June over its decision to stop certifying cosmetics.

The USDA created the label in 2002 to identify food that is free of pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals. Meat and milk products certified as organic must come from animals raised on organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They may not be injected with growth hormones or antibiotics.

Some makers of cosmetics and other products that use naturally raised ingredients sought the USDA's seal of approval, and the department said it would oblige them before deciding in April that it should stick solely with regulating food. On Tuesday night, a day away from a deadline to respond to the manufacturers' lawsuit, the USDA reversed its position.

The challenge to adequately regulate cosmetics under the new laws has proved to be daunting, said Barbara Robinson, head of the department's National Organic Program.

"We do food," Robinson said. "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?' "

USDA officials determined that it didn't matter what type of product was labeled as long as it followed the rules. "What difference does it make if you brush your teeth with it or eat it?" Robinson said.

Dietary supplements and pet food also can be certified as organic under the decision. Organic standards for fish are being created by the department.

Without the USDA requirements, there would be anarchy in product labeling, said Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist for the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Assn.

"There are a number of industries making millions annually by making misleading claims," Minowa said, often by adding trace amounts of organic materials to traditional chemical compounds. "Now, consumers can look for the USDA seal and know the product met tough standards."

Bronner's privately held company, a longtime seller of natural body-care products, had invested $100,000 in getting some of its products USDA certified and hundreds of thousands of dollars more in lining up supplies from farmers who could produce organic coconut oil and other approved ingredients, he said.

When the USDA said it was backing out of certification, "our whole business model was threatened," Bronner said. "They didn't quite understand what was at stake."

He expects the manufacturers' lawsuit to be withdrawn within 30 days.

Associated Press was used in compiling this report.