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Federal 'biobased' label plan stirs debate

Federal 'biobased' label plan stirs debate

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The USDA's "bio-based" label would apply to products and packaging that use a minimum of 25 percent in renewable animal or plant materials. The controversy: what's NOT covered.

A proposal by the U.S. Department of the Agriculture that would help businesses officially disclose how much "biobased" content their products or packaging contains through a "BioPreferred" label has come in for some criticism from an executive in the packaging industry.

The BioPreferred program is meant to identify bio-based products that are composed of a minimum amount of renewable plant or animal materials. That minimum is currently 25 percent, which actually seems like a very low threshhold to me. But I guess it's a start, and consumers ARE interested in the emergence of labels that more clearly identify products that contain renewable content. And businesses should be eager to get visibility for their efforts to incorporate these sorts of products into their products.

According to the fact sheet published by the USDA, "the purpose of the labeling initiative is to more clearly identify biobased products for all buyers and to promote the increased sale and use of biobased products in the commercial market and for consumers."

When the USDA announced this initiative in January, it notes that distributors and manufacturers can start applying for the label at the end of February 2011. (There isn't a fee right now, but there probably will be in the future.) The agency estimates there are upwards of 20,000 biobased products being manufactured in the United States.

The new controversy, as reported in this article on the CosmeticsDesign.com Web site, is that the USDA is going to exclude "mature market" products from the labeling program. That means even if they fit the USDA's broad definition, products that had significant market share as far back as 1972 are excluded from the labeling program. So, stuff like paper plates would be entirely excluded. Huh? (That is a quirk of this label's origins as a government procurement vehicle created back in 2002 as part of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act.) The specific example cited in the CosmeticsDesign.com article relates to packaging. According to the executive, none of the packaging materials used today could be included, even if it met the biobased minimum. Huh?

I have to give the USDA credit for testing the waters on this sort of label, but it does seem as if this program might make matters more confusing for the consumer. I do think the government needs to play a role for labels and green certifications to have credibility, but it needs more help from the private sector in figuring out what is realistic rather than trying to forcefit things into existing programs. Watching this one.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure