USDA Lowers Bar for New 'Biobased' Product Label

Shoppers should expect to see USDA's biobased label this spring
Shoppers should expect to see USDA's biobased label this spring.
Photo courtesy of USDA.

By Paul Voosen, Environment & Energy News

The Department of Agriculture will launch a new product label tomorrow for consumer and industrial products that have been wholly -- or, more likely, partially -- created from farm crops or forestry, rather than fossil fuels.

The voluntary label, modeled on programs like USDA's organic label and Energy Star, should begin appearing in stores this spring.

Consumers have long waited for any third-party labels that certify some degree of sustainability or support of energy independence in the products they buy, given the plethora of competing green claims on the market. The biobased label will help fill some of that void, said Kathleen Merrigan, USDA's deputy secretary.

"People like me who go to CVS can shop purposefully," she said.

Such purpose could be lessened by the program's generous threshold, however. When it comes to certifying lip balms, household cleaners or any other product as "USDA certified biobased," the agency will mandate that only 25 percent of the item derive from renewable materials. The agency, in its initial proposals, had set that threshold at 51 percent, but nearly unified industrial opposition saw the agency lower its standards.

It was a necessary compromise that should spur consumer acceptance of the label, with threshold standards likely to rise as industries mature, Merrigan said.

"We're looking for that sweet spot where we feel that it launches a program of significant girth," she said. "Consumers can see that label and go for those options. ... It's not meaningless. You have to have a 25 percent threshold to achieve this label, which is not insignificant."

Not everyone in the biomaterials industry agreed with lowering the threshold. Metabolix, one of the leaders in the growing field of bioplastics, warned in comments submitted to USDA that reducing the standard below 50 percent could lead to "greenwashing," undermining the label's credibility with the public. The label, however, does include a numerical percentage of the product's "bio" content, potentially mitigating these concerns.

Environmental groups have also expressed disappointment that the program makes no attempt to assess the life cycle of biobased products, many of which derive from energy-intensive crops like corn. (The program does exclude products created from old-growth forests.) Instead, USDA will use simple physical tests to determine whether the organic materials in a product derive from plant life or fossilized carbon.

USDA did employ life-cycle assessment, using methods developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, when it first launched its congressionally mandated "BioPreferred" purchasing program earlier this decade. However, as the agency moved to biobased labeling, it eliminated any such requirements, said Rita Schenck, executive director of the Institute for Environmental Research and Education.

"That's really unfortunate because globally, the world is moving toward label on life-cycle assessment," Schenck said. "USDA lost its opportunity to bring agribusiness into the 21st century."

'Commercial availability' clause

Merrigan likens the label's forgiving requirements to the origins of the National Organic Program.

At its beginning, the organic label contained a "commercial availability" clause that allowed food to qualify for the program even if it wasn't composed entirely of organic ingredients, thanks to limited availability of organic ingredients. As the market for organic products grew, the clause dwindled in use.

"We couldn't pull it off overnight," she said, "because then there would have been no one with the organic seal."

The department expects that by allowing broad use of the label, consumer awareness of biobased products will rise, and many products will slowly grow in biobased content as they mature. For example, the agency cites biobased foams used in automobiles. Originally, they were only 5 to 10 percent biobased, but now they are regularly over 30 percent.

Building off its biopreferred program, which was mandated by the 2002 farm bill, USDA has already designated some 5,100 products in 50 product categories as biobased. Given reasonable expense, the department is required to purchase these products over their oil-derived equivalents; for consumers, on the other hand, such purchases are entirely optional, prompting the voluntary labeling scheme.

Like with its organic program, USDA has developed a distinctive appearance for its biobased label. It settled on design incorporating the sun, sea and fields of grain, which echoes, perhaps unintentionally, the 2008 campaign logo of Barack Obama. The label will also specify whether it is the product, packaging or both that are USDA-certified.

Consumers will likely face some confusion when encountering the label, as it makes fine distinctions between "mature" and developing product markets, setting a cut-off date at 1972, before the first oil crisis. For example, this means that paper plates, almost wholly derived from trees, cannot qualify for the label, while a plate containing only 25 percent corn-derived plastic would qualify.

The agency has also demurred from tackling more complex products like automobiles, which could contain components, like seat cushions, that would qualify as biobased. Such products cannot currently qualify for the program, though the agency is open to modifying the label's requirements as it moves forward, Merrigan said.