Consumer trust in organic food is high, but “organic” claims in non-food aisles need clean-up
The rigorous and proven regulatory system of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Organic Program has established a deep trust in USDA certified organic food products by American consumers. Now, consumers need to be able to carry over this well-earned trust in organic food to cosmetics, household cleaners and other non-food products claiming to be organic, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) will tell Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and USDA officials at a public roundtable Thursday.
The FTC and USDA will co-host a roundtable Oct 20 to help better understand how consumers perceive organic claims on items outside the food aisles, and to determine if the FTC needs to issue further guidance to makers of non-food products that use the organic claim or term, but do not use the USDA Organic seal or make any reference to organic certification.
Invited to participate in the discussion, OTA will present the findings of a research study recently conducted for OTA exploring consumers’ attitudes, understanding and expectations surrounding organic claims and specifically the labeling of organic non-food products and services.
“American consumers need to trust in the organic label and in organic claims, whether those labels are on organic produce and organic milk or on shampoo and sheets,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of OTA. “Our survey shows consumers who are buying organic feel that both organic food products and non-food products claiming to be organic should be regulated in the same manner. Consumers are confident there are standards and government oversight on the organic label for food, and they deserve to have that same confidence for all products with the organic claim.”
A gap in the regulatory system
For more than 15 years, the National Organic Program (NOP) has regulated and enforced strict organic standards for agricultural products. However, NOP’s enforcement authority does not extend to certain types of non-food or non-agricultural products, such as personal care products, detergent and cosmetics. As a result, food products in stores have to be certified by USDA to carry the organic label, or risk being found guilty of fraud and slapped with civil penalties and other enforcement actions. But non-agricultural products like household cleaners or personal care items are able to use organic claims whether they are certified or not. If a non-agricultural product does not use the USDA Organic seal and does not make reference to certification, that product can still use the term “organic,” and do so without any federal oversight and enforcement.
“Consumers trust and understand that certified organic food products meet strict standards, and that those standards are regulated and enforced by the federal government,” said Angela Jagiello, OTA’s Associate Director for Conference and Product Development, who will present the findings of the OTA study at the roundtable. “The regulatory gap for non-agricultural products is a major hole in the organic regulatory system. It creates consumer confusion and unfair competition for companies that get their products certified, and ultimately undermines the organic label.”
The Federal Trade Commission, under its consumer protection jurisdiction, has authority to act on misleading or fraudulent “organic” claims on products that fall outside NOP’s purview but has not exercised that authority because FTC has said it is uncertain what consumers think when they see the term “organic.” OTA has been meeting regularly with FTC and NOP since 2012 to urge FTC to exercise its consumer protection authority regarding organic claims.
Protecting the integrity of organic
OTA has urged FTC to confer with NOP and develop a draft enforcement policy for organic claims on non-food products that are outside NOP’s authority, and has stressed that not enforcing organic claims in all products could risk diluting the integrity of and trust in the organic seal. As a result of OTA’s advocacy, FTC and USDA co-funded a survey in 2015 of more than 8,000 consumers on their understanding of organic claims on products outside NOP’s scope of authority. The results of that study show confusion as to whether organic claims on non-food products mean the same as on food products, and inaccurate understandings about USDA regulation and certification of organic claims for non-food products.
The FTC-USDA roundtable will discuss the findings of that survey and approaches to address potential misleading and deceptive claims.
“The information that FTC and USDA gather should ultimately provide the agencies with increased understanding on how and when to act on the fraudulent use of the term “organic” on products that fall outside of NOP’s authority,” said OTA’s Batcha. “Shoppers need to trust products labeled as “organic,” whether they are sold in the food aisle or the personal care aisle. Failure to require certification and enforce the use of the term “organic” on all products can lead to consumers mistrusting the integrity of the word “organic.”
Organic sales in the U.S. in 2015 posted new records, with total organic product sales hitting a new benchmark of $43.3 billion, up a robust 11 percent from the previous year’s record level, according to OTA’s 2016 Organic Industry Survey. Of the $43.3 billion in total organic sales, $39.7 billion were organic food sales, up 11 percent from the previous year, with non-food organic products accounting for $3.6 billion, up 13 percent.
Thursday’s roundtable will be broadcast live by the FTC, and the webcast details will be published on the agency’s website. OTA's study can be seen on FTC’s website as well.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for the organic trade in the United States, representing over 8,500 organic businesses across 50 states. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA’s Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA's mission is to promote and protect ORGANIC with a unifying voice that serves and engages its diverse members from farm to marketplace.