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Whole Foods Market Raises Standards for Organic Labeling on Personal Care Products Sold in its Stores

Whole Foods Market Raises Standards for Organic Labeling on Personal Care Products Sold in its Stores

In November of 2009, Whole Foods Market presented the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) with written comments decrying the absence of government regulation of organic personal care products. “The organic personal care marketplace is currently very much a ‘Wild West’ in which anyone can make an organic claim without substantiation or certification,” the statement said (E. Leader-Smith, e-mail, August 16, 2010).

With a very few exceptions, all foods labeled organic must be certified under the USDA’s National Organics Program (NOP). Personal care products, such as cosmetics, bath items, and other skincare goods, can be certified organic by the USDA, but are not required to be in order to make an organic label claim.1

That will all change in June of 2011—at least for those organic personal care manufacturers who hope to do business with the Austin, Texas-based natural food retail giant Whole Foods.2 The retailer recently announced its plan to privately sheriff the organic personal care industry until federal regulation is in place. With the exception of supplements, items sold in the “Whole Body” section of the store whose labels make organic claims will have to prove the legitimacy of such claims through obtaining either USDA NOP certification or NSF International’s American National Standards Institute (ANSI) 305 certification.2 NSF International is a Michigan-based nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that develops widely recognized national standards in the areas of food, water, indoor air, and the environment.

Because Whole Foods' sales account for such a significant segment of the organic retail industry, the company’s decision is likely to reverberate far beyond the walls of its own stores.

“I’m really proud of our company,” said Joe Dickson, Whole Foods quality standards coordinator, “that we’ve drawn the line here and made a decision that’s going to effect so much change” (oral communication, August 16, 2010).

According to Dickson, who also sits on the NOSB, Whole Foods already had a strict set of standards in place for what it would allow into its personal care aisles. “We screen every ingredient for safety and naturalness and environmental issues,” said Dickson. Still, the organic claims made on some products were anywhere from “marginally confusing to outwardly deceptive,” he said. “A customer walking from produce into Whole Body should not have to adjust their expectations or definitions.”

According to the USDA’s website, a food product masquerading as organic could result in a penalty of up to $11,000 for its manufacturer.3 Personal care companies have not lived in fear of any such repercussion from the NOP.

The USDA separates organic classification into 4 categories. To qualify as “100% organic,” the product should contain only organic materials (with the exception of water and salt). “Organic” products must be composed of 95% organic ingredients—again, save water and salt—and the other 5% must appear on the National List of Approved Substances (which are presently geared toward food, not personal care products, according to Dickson). “Made with organic ingredients” products must be 70% organic; they can list up to three of the organic ingredients on the principal display panel of the product’s packaging, but they may not use the USDA Organic Seal. Products made up of less than 70% organic ingredients can label the individual USDA-certified organic ingredients as such in the ingredient panel and are not permitted to use the USDA Organic Seal.3

According to the USDA’s website, “[T]he operations which produce the organic agricultural ingredients, the handlers of these agricultural ingredients, and the manufacturer of the final product must all be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.”4 The site lists more than 50 domestic accredited certifying agents, including Quality Assurance International (QAI), an agency with whom NSF is partnering for certification.5

According to Dickson, the new ANSI 305 certification will be comparable to the USDA’s “made with organic ingredients” certification, except that it makes “allowances for ingredients and processes that are specific to personal care” that the USDA does not. In fact, Whole Foods held off on its change in protocol until the ANSI 305 standard was completely developed by the NSF Joint Committee on Organic Personal Care—a committee on which Dickson served.

“We wanted to wait for that to be done,” said Dickson, “so that those manufacturers who still wanted to make a label claim that their product contains organic botanical ingredients or organic essential oils had a framework in which to do that.”

It is inevitable that some companies will repackage some or all of their current line in claim-free containers, especially because all products under brand names incorporating the word “organic” or “organics” must be USDA NOP or ANSI 305 certified organic to remain on Whole Foods shelves (E. Leader-Smith, e-mail, August 26, 2010). As a result, Aubrey Organics has a second brand in the works called “Aubrey.”1

Lily Organics, whose skincare line is featured in select Whole Foods stores, is in the unique position of being a USDA-certified organic grower and handler, in addition to receiving USDA organic certification for one of its products, Organic Kukui Sensitive Facial Oil Treatment, according to Lily Morgan, the company’s founder. Morgan says Whole Foods’ announcement did not influence her company’s decisions regarding organic certification (e-mail, August 20, 2010).

“We have had these same high standards since 1986: made fresh weekly, no synthetic chemicals, ever, and pure plant organic ingredients,” said Morgan, who plans to submit 6 more products for USDA NOP certification in the near future. Morgan does not anticipate seeking NSF’s ANSI 305 certification for any of her products, in part because a mere copy of the ANSI 305 standard guidelines costs $100. Certification through the NSF and USDA-accredited certifying agency QAI runs an additional $2,000 to “several thousand” more, depending on the number of products certified, said QAI’s general manager, Jaclyn Bowen (oral communication, August 23, 2010).

Dickson said the USDA is considering Whole Foods’ recommendation for federal regulation of organic personal care products. “They did indicate this year that they are talking pretty productively to the FDA, which shares jurisdiction for personal care products. Our hope is the two agencies will work together to figure out where everyone’s turf is.”

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) lists both the NOP and ANSI 305 standards among its “Best Practices” for the interim, but says it will be “looking more closely at these private standards as it moves forward toward a federal standard” (B. Haumann, e-mail, August 26, 2010).

Per NSF International’s website, if the government should become active in regulating organic personal care claims in the future, “the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) circular A-119 would encourage them to rely on the consensus national standard, which in this case is NSF/ANSI 305.”6

—Ashley Lindstrom


1.Well, is it organic or not? The New York Times. July 14, 2010. Available at: fashion/15skin.html?_r=1&ref=organic_food. Accessed August 13, 2010.

2.Whole Foods Market press room. Whole Foods Market website. Available at: blog/2010/06/18/whole-foods-market%C2%AE-and-personal-care-suppliers-bring-authenticity-to-organic-labeling/. Accessed August 12, 2010.

3.Organic labeling and marketing information. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website. Available at: www.ams.usda. gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004446&acct=nopgeninfo. Accessed August 19, 2010. 4.Cosmetics, body care products, and personal care products. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website. Available at: Accessed August 19, 2010.

5.USDA accredited certifying agents. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website. Available at: AMSv1.0/ cProgram&page=NOPACAs&description=USDA%20Accredited%20Certifying%20Agents&acct=nopgeninfo. Accessed August 19, 2010.

6.Questions & answers about the New American National Standard for Personal Care Products “Made with Organic” Ingredients. NSF International website. Available at: Organic%20FAQ_03%2017%2009.pdf. Accessed August 19, 2010.