Whole Foods: Time for integrity in ‘organic’ personal care items
Beginning next June, retailer to hold products to same USDA standards applied to foodstuffs
Citing confusion in the marketplace, Whole Foods Market Inc. is cracking down on organic standards for personal care products.
Numerous products such as soaps and shampoos tout themselves as being “organic” or made with organic materials — but those claims aren’t regulated by the government, as is done with food.
And because there’s no regulation, “you’ll see an organic shampoo that may have a very small percentage of organic ingredients, or one organic ingredient,” said Joe Dickson, Whole Foods’ food, organic and environmental quality standards coordinator.
“Or in a few cases, not necessarily in products we’ve been selling … we’ve seen organic claims being made with no organic ingredients identified on a product, which is obviously deceptive,” Dickson said.
Starting next June, Whole Foods will require that its suppliers of personal care products making organic claims meet the same U.S. Department of Agriculture standards as food does. That means products billed as “organic” must be made with more than 95 percent organic ingredients. Those products advertised as being made with organic ingredients must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
The move will boost consumer confidence in
organic labeling, Dickson said, while giving credit to companies that already make authentically organic products.
“For the core organic shop- per, what you put on is just as important as what you put in,” he said.
Some companies, frustrated with poseur competitors, are happy with the changes.
One Whole Foods supplier, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, is recognized as a leader in the organic personal care product field. To accomplish that, the company has invested “substantially” in its supply chains, said David Bronner, president of the Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner’s.
But “we’re on a shelf with products that are making even stronger organic claims than we are, that are not based in organic materials in any of their major ingredients,” Bronner said.
Whole Foods has the clout within the industry to lead a change, he said. The chain “represents such a significant amount of everyone’s business, you’re not going to have two different labels in the market,” he said. “It’s going to more or less create a de facto regulated market.”
Diana Kaye and her husband sell organic body products online and out of some smaller stores nationwide. But their Terressentials products aren’t carried in Whole Foods, and Kaye said she’d like to see the standards enacted more quickly, to give operations like hers a foot in the door.
Many companies have been unethical in marketing themselves as organic, said Kaye, who is based in Maryland.
“They have exploited the consumers’ trust, and they have really degraded the word ‘organic’ in the marketplace,” she said.
In the past, Whole Foods led the charge for organic food standards. And Dickson himself serves on the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, which advises the department on which substances should be allowed in organic production and handling.
But there is uncertainty over which government body might regulate organic claims for personal care products. The standards board recommended last fall that the USDA should regulate those claims — a position that Whole Foods supports, Dickson said.
“Until something happens and we can just defer to the government, like we do with food, we have to sort of pinchhit and regulate it ourselves,” he said.
Dickson said the reception from suppliers has been overwhelmingly positive, but he acknowledged that some would prefer to keep the status quo.
“I think there’s a feeling out there that our decision will be a pretty big catalyst to drive positive change in the industry,” he said. “A lot of manufacturers who want to do good, this will give them a framework in which to ramp up the integrity of their label.”
Whole Foods employee Hibiscus Rozuk helps Ana Stephen and her daughter Nyla, 5, with their shopping on Wednesday. By June of next year, Whole Foods shoppers should be able to have even greater confidence that personal care products labeled ‘organic’ really are.