Dozens of shampoos, lotions and other personal care products are labeled "organic" even though they contain few or no organic ingredients – a violation of California law, according to an environmental watchdog group.
In a lawsuit filed last week in Alameda County Superior Court, the Center for Environmental Health accused 25 companies of mislabeling their products as organic, misleading consumers who often pay higher prices for the items. The group filed a similar lawsuit last month against the Hain Celestial Group, a worldwide leader in natural and organic foods and products, such as Avalon Organics, Alba Botanica and Jason.
"Folks feel like they've been duped – that they've paid more for something and they didn't get it," said Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the center.
Margulis added that some of the companies named in the lawsuit sell products with synthetic ingredients that pose health risks. For example, a kids' hair-softening system made by Organics by Africa's Best contains BHA, which California has classified as a carcinogen [PDF] for more than 20 years.
"The reason that I would think a majority of people buy organic products and pay more for them is because they expect the products are going to prohibit those kinds of ingredients," he said. "They expect that's what 'organic' means because that's what it means in food."
But personal care products are not regulated like food. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture enforces the term "organic" in foods, it has no such rules for cosmetics.
Still, under the California Organic Products Act of 2003, personal care products labeled "organic" on the front of the package must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Those with less than 70 percent may only use the term "organic" on the ingredient list.
The California Department of Public Health is responsible for enforcing the law on personal care products. The agency conducts periodic compliance inspections of organic processors and investigates complaints. It also can review label claims and product formulations, embargo misbranded products, and issue civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each unintentional violation and $5,000 for an intentional violation.
The department has taken enforcement action against only one company for mislabeled organic products in the last eight years, said Ingeborg Small, chief of the agency's Food and Drug Branch. In 2008, after investigating a complaint, the agency fined YSL Beauté Inc. $7,500; the company pulled four products from the market to correct its labels.
All the companies named in the Center for Environmental Health's lawsuits have "organic" on the front of their products. However, many of the products contained no organic ingredients. Because ingredients are listed in descending order of prominence, the center was able to determine that others did not contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
Without knowing the exact recipe for products, the center calculated the maximum possible percentage of organic ingredients based on the order in which they were listed. Hold Up styling mousse by Kiss My Face, for example, had just one certified organic ingredient, listed 12th out of 16. As such, the product could be no more than 8 percent organic.
UC Berkeley statistics professors Philip Stark and Nick Jewell both told California Watch that the center's methodology was sound.
Of the 26 companies the center is suing, California Watch called nine, including Kiss My Face and the Hain Celestial Group. None returned requests for comment.
If its lawsuits are successful, the center anticipates there will be a "ripple effect" as more companies start to comply, Margulis said. And California, as the nation's leader in organic production and consumption, has the potential to change the tone for the entire industry, he said.