The Department of Agriculture has a new message for consumers looking for organic cosmetics: Buyer beware.
The agency recently said it will not allow its label certifying when products such as foods can be considered organic to be used on personal-care products or cosmetics.
"We don't have any standards for personal care or cosmetic products," said Barbara Robinson, deputy administrator for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. "There is nothing in the law that contemplates extending this to personal-care and cosmetic products. Those commodities are under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration."
The announcement has outraged some manufacturers, who said it amounts to a reversal in policy that will harm their businesses.
Congress ordered the USDA in 1990 to help the public navigate the numerous and sometimes confusing claims of products being organic by developing national, uniform standards. The agency wrote up a number of rules and definitions stipulating how those hoping to win the government seal must produce and handle their products. Those guidelines barred, for example, the use of genetic engineering, irradiation and most synthetic substances.
The department also certified private inspectors who, in turn, decided when individual farms and processors met the USDA's criteria. Those who won approval were allowed, beginning in October 2002, to place green "USDA Organic" labels on their products.
It was never entirely clear whether makers of cosmetics and personal-care products could also win the labels -- which, they said, became more valuable and recognizable as organic products became popular.
Robinson acknowledged that the department's policy has been at times unclear, but said it has never authorized cosmetics and personal-care manufacturers to receive the labels.
Some manufacturers of cosmetics and personal care products disputed Robinson, saying they were approved for the labels after making costly investments.
"We are very, very upset," said Lynn Betz, the president of a Pennsylvania company that manufactures soaps and lotions that, she said, won the USDA's approval last year.
"They are harming our business," Betz said. "To be legitimately certified and to have them approved under those standards and then say to us, a year later: 'Oops, we've decided that you can't put the seal on personal-care products' is unbelievable to me."
Some consumers with allergies or particularly sensitive skin are also concerned. "If you're not able to put it [the label] on the product, it's hard to differentiate a product that has a few token organic ingredients from one that meets the national organic standards," said Craig Minowa, of the Organic Consumers Association.