By  on May 2, 2008

Members of the natural products industry gathered Thursday morning to reveal a seal that can be placed on qualifying products, which will set them apart from those that merely use the term "natural" as a marketing tool.

About 100 members of the media and beauty industry attended the press conference on the 36th floor of the Mandarin Oriental New York, listening to leaders of the industry discuss the Natural Certification Program and Seal of Approval, efforts that will help consumers make product choices that are in line with what products' labels say they are.

"Natural product sales have doubled in the past few years....500 new suppliers of natural care have come about in the past five years," said Daniel Fabricant, who has a Ph.D. in pharmacognosy, the study of natural products, and is vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association.

This influx of items has caused confusion in the marketplace as manufacturers, in many cases, have simply slapped the word "natural" onto their containers, when formulas may contain only a small percentage of a plant or herb, Fabricant said. In many cases, these same items also contain parabens or petrolatum, ingredients natural product makers deem potential health risks.

"There are companies, as well-intentioned as they may be, who are coming out with products positioned as natural but are not natural," said Mike Indursky, chief marketing and strategic officer of Burt's Bees, and a pioneer of the natural certification program and seal.

According to Indursky, the natural products industry stands at roughly $7 billion, but less than 20 percent of that number would fall under the Natural Products Association's definition of natural. Included in this definition is that a product must be made up of at least 95 percent natural ingredients, no item can contain ingredients that pose a health risk or use processes that alter the purity of a natural ingredient, and nonnatural ingredients are allowed only when a viable natural alternative is unavailable.

Indursky explained that the standard is a "living document," and that it will be updated as technology and science continues to evolve and discoveries into safer ingredients emerge.

For a company to qualify for a seal, it must apply for certification to the Natural Products Association, which will lead it to one of the association's third-party auditors to analyze the products' ingredients and processing practices. Different fees will apply to different companies; fees were not revealed at the conference.Erk Schuchhardt, president and chief executive officer of Weleda, attended the conference and spoke on behalf of the standard, saying it is something the U.S. has been needing, especially since Europe began the process of setting up individual standards about 12 years ago. Currently, the United Kingdom uses the Soil Association as its standard, France uses EcoCert and Germany uses BDIH. A U.S. standard will help an industry that is already "intensely vertically integrated, which is critical for suppliers," he said.

Schuchhardt also hinted at a big change in Europe's certification process, one that could see one main standard develop for the region.

"We may see some consolidation of the BDIH, the Soil Association and EcoCert, and a new label in natural. It will be a very different situation and playing field in the next two months," Schuchhardt said.

Curt Valva of Aubrey Organics, who also cowrote the natural standard, said the growth of natural care in mass and prestige outlets has put pressure on the industry to loosen its standards of natural, and the result is the overflow of products that aren't natural but say they are.

Members of the panel urged consumer media editors to help get word out about the standard and its seal, as manufacturers begin to eke out individual advertising and marketing plans. Products bearing the seal are expected on shelves in the next few months, said Fabricant.

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