USDA Puts BioPreferred Program on Hold

New applications for certification not being accepted because funding was not renewed in the farm bill legislation passed by Congress.

WASHINGTON — Textile, apparel and beauty-care companies could see less government procurement businesses in the wake of the suspension of new applications under a preferential federal program that encourages government agencies and contractors to purchase products that are made from significant amounts of biobased materials.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that all new applications to its BioPreferred Program have been suspended because funding was not renewed in the farm bill legislation passed by Congress as part of a broader package designed to avert the fiscal cliff at the end of the year. The agency said existing biobased product label certifications will remain valid, despite the suspension of processing of new applications for voluntary certification biobased products.

“USDA will continue limited activities related to the federal procurement preference program, such as adding products to the ‘BioPreferred’ catalogue, as staff resources allow,” the agency said.

Many companies, such as Lenzing and DuPont, have fibers and other products certified under the program and qualify for preferential treatment for government procurement business as a result of the certification because the products are more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The U.S. farm bill established the BioPreferred program in 2002 and the program was reauthorized in 2008. But funding was not provided in an extension of the farm bill at the end of the year.

Under the program, the United States Department of Agriculture had received applications for the certification of more than 800 products by the end of 2011. Of that total, more than 500 were certified and more than 300 were under review, according to the agency. A total of 150 types of products, ranging from industrial supplies to personal-care items, are represented in the applications. The USDA said its program has identified more than 25,000 products available on the market today. The agency did not provide any data on 2012 applications.

“I think in the United States, you have companies who are trying to differentiate their products in their market and you have sustainability, which is a fact of life for the industry,” said Jan O’Regan, director of strategic initiatives at Cotton Incorporated. “The USDA BioPreferred program gives companies who are working hard to ensure they have products that are sustainable a means for communicating that their efforts have been validated. To the extent that the activity slows down, it makes it more difficult or it may mean it takes longer to get certification.”

O’Regan said companies use the certification for government procurement, but also to market their products to their customers in the supply chain and even to retailers, most of which now ask their product suppliers for more sustainable products.

Asked whether the suspension of new certification was a setback to the sustainability movement, O’Regan said: “The program has credibility and it is a shame that they will not for the foreseeable future be able to keep up with the demand for industry certifications, so it impedes progress somewhat.”

Tricia Carey, USA merchandising manager for the textile fiber business unit of Lenzing, said the suspension of applications could impact companies at a time when more production is said to be moving back to the U.S.

“One week we hear that Wal-Mart plans to bring back more production to the U.S. and the next week the U.S. says it is not supporting the USDA’s biobased program and is putting new applications on hold,” Carey said.

Wal-Mart announced that it plans to purchase $50 billion in American-made products over the next 10 years.

“Lenzing has been involved in the USDA program from the beginning, not just on the apparel side but also on workwear, uniforms and the nonwoven side of the business,” Carey said. “Our products are already certified, but now our customers won’t be able to put in applications for new products for certification.

“You see momentum from the Wal-Mart announcement but everyone needs to be aligned, including the U.S. government,” to make a difference, she said.

Lenzing’s MicroModal and Tencel fibers are certified under the program. Carey said it is companies looking to certify their end products that will now be held up, which could impact future business, if fewer end-product brands and companies are certified.