WASHINGTON -- If you want a lotion, soap, or lip balm free of chemicals and synthetics, you'd better read the fine print. The Agriculture Department is taking its round, green ''USDA Organic" label off personal care products and cosmetics.
When it created the seal in 2002, the primary intent was to certify the organic claims made by food producers, such as that meat came from animals raised without antibiotics and not confined indoors, or that vegetables were grown without pesticides.
But the department also opened the door to making a wide range of other products eligible for the label: cosmetics and personal care items, pet food, dietary supplements, textiles like cotton T-shirts, and fish.
''The feeling was, if your product was composed of agricultural ingredients, and you thought you could get certified, you were welcome to try," said Barbara Robinson, head of the department's National Organic Program.
Three years later, the department decided it had gone too far. In April, it began telling companies their cosmetics and other personal care products can't be government-certified as organic, after all.
Fish and pet food are also off the table, but only for now. The department is creating task forces to make rules for certifying them. Still being decided is whether dietary supplements can use the seal.
''As time went by, and legal counsel in the department and senior policy officials took a closer look, they determined that wouldn't really stand up in a court of law," Robinson said.
The department's reversal also is frustrating to companies that spent money and time to put the seal on their products. An Agriculture Department-authorized agent must certify a company before it can use the seal or label something ''100 percent organic" or ''organic."
David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, said his company spent some $100,000 to ensure that his soaps, lotions, and lip balms met the standards for using the seal.
Bronner said consumers are confused by the myriad products that claim to have ''organic" or ''natural" ingredients. The USDA seal guaranteed his products are free of chemicals and synthetic ingredients, he said.
''Everyone in the world's making an organic claim," Bronner said. ''We're not doing tricks. We actually work really hard to make real, organic ingredients. The National Organic Program is what consumers trust."
Organic means a product contains all-natural, nonsynthetic substances that are grown without using conventional pesticides or fertilizer, biotechnology or radiation.
And it means meat and dairy products have come from animals raised on organic feed, given access to the outdoors and never given antibiotics or growth hormones.
The Organic Consumers Association is asking the Agriculture Department to take another look at removing its seal from personal care products.