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David Bronner Headshot

Bring In the Organic Police

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I am President of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a 60-year-old family company founded by my German-Jewish grandfather, Dr. Emmanuel Bronner in 1948. We produce the best-selling natural brand of liquid and bar soap in the United States from formulas that have been in my family for over 150 years.

Organic personal care for us and our customers is about traditional time-honored recipes handed down through generations, based on ingredients produced from organic agriculture with a bare minimum of synthetics and processing. Beginning in the 1940s, the world was flooded with cheaply-made synthetics, ranging from pesticides and food additives to detergents and plastics, all created in the laboratory largely from non-renewable petroleum. This widespread use of synthetics was hailed as "Better Living Through Chemistry," but its unintended consequences included pollution of the air and water, deterioration of soil nutrients and health, unhealthy overly processed foods, and synthetic ingredients in personal care products -- more than a few with significant toxicity issues.

A generation later, in a movement led by pioneers such as my grandfather, more and more people began changing the way they lived and consumed. That global, organic and sustainable movement that has taken shape over the last few decades continues to reject the intensive synthetic inputs and processes used in conventional agriculture and food processing. It also recognizes that traditional methods result in better soil and improved human and environmental health. In the realm of organic personal care, organic consumers expect "organic food for the skin" based on cleansers and moisturizers made from certified organic agricultural, not petrochemical, material. They expect that hand and body washes use traditional simple soaps made from organic oils, rather than modern synthetic surfactants made in part or entirely with petrochemicals. And they expect that organic unrefined oils and waxes, rather than synthetic silicone or hydrogenated vegetable oils, will be used as emollients and moisturizers.

Consumers trust "organic" personal care brands that voluntarily comply with the hard-fought USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations, the federal rules that govern the labeling as "organic" of both raw and manufactured food products and ensure consumers that such items are free of the chemicals they expect to not be present in "organic" products.

Unfortunately, compliance with the NOP is currently voluntary, not mandatory. For that reason, the current regulatory approach fails to protect consumers from misleading and deceptive labeling. People are paying a premium for personal care products they believe are organic when in fact they are made from the same petrochemicals used by brands that aren't even natural in the first place. The problem is that while the NOP enforces strict standards for the labeling of organic food products, the NOP has thus far declined to regulate "organic" personal care, thus fostering a business culture of fraud.

Just as America woke up to Wall Street abuses in the housing bubble, we are set to see the "organic" personal care bubble burst as well. Companies that make high profits off fraudulently labeled "organic" brands are slowly being exposed. Groups like the Organic Consumers Association have initiated a consumer boycott of such brands. The California Attorney General in May of 2008 sued leading so-called "organic" brands for 1,4-Dioxane contamination, produced when the petrochemical Ethylene Oxide is attached to their non-organic cleansers and moisturizers. But without federal NOP regulation and action, millions more will continue to be deceived, and trust in the integrity of organic products will be permanently compromised.

This month, USDA's National Organic Standards Board will vote on whether to recommend that the NOP regulate personal care products and "ensure consumers and businesses alike that the products have an unquestioned home in the USDA National Organic Program." If the Board recommends that USDA NOP undertake such regulation, the USDA should promptly act on that recommendation. Unfortunately, aggressive lobbying by "organic cheaters" may delay or derail such regulation.

In the meantime, to protect consumers and our own business from the fraudulent labeling that is already rampant, we have filed suit against prominent "organic cheater" brands under the federal law that bans false and misleading advertising. If companies cannot live up to their organic claims, they need to drop those claims. Deceptive practices that profit off growing consumer demand for healthy and environmentally friendly organic products must stop. We need the USDA NOP to step up and regulate personal care products. Now is the time to clean up the systemic consumer labeling fraud in organic body care, before the organic brand is damaged beyond repair. Bring in the organic police.

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