by Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director
Announced in the Federal Register in January 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will begin the voluntary Bio-Based Label program “to boost demand for products made from renewable commodities and support green jobs.” Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan states that bio-based products “have enormous potential to create green jobs in rural communities, add value to agricultural commodities, decrease environmental impacts, and reduce our dependence on imported oil.”
With this third-party certification (by ASTM International) and labeling program, similar in design to the USDA Certified Organic Label program, the USDA launches the second part of its BioPreferred Program (instituted by the 2002 Farm Bill), from federal procurement employees ordering preferred, sustainable products for government agencies to all consumers and commercial markets (as specified in the 2008 Farm Bill). USDA Bio-Based labels should appear on store products, including lip balm, household cleaners, sheets and towels, by Spring 2011. Readers may learn more about the BioPreferred Program at http://www.biopreferred.gov.
According to a USDA press release, “bio-based products are those composed wholly or significantly of biological ingredients – renewable plant, animal, marine or forestry materials.” Originally 51% was the minimum amount allowed for certification. It has been changed to 25%, which, according to the USDA, might be increased in the future, just as the permissible percentage of organic ingredients in a product labeled as “USDA Certified Organic” has risen. The percentage of bio-based ingredients in the product is indicated on the label in a prominent place, aiding consumers to make informed purchasing choices. The label will also specify whether it is the product, packaging or both that are certified as bio-based. Readers may view a sample label at www.biopreferred.com. To view the entire Final Rule in the Federal Register: http://www.biopreferred.gov/files/BP_Label_Final_Rule_01_20_11.pdf
Products with a historically high bio-based percentage (set at pre-1972, according to the USDA), such as paper plates, wood furniture, and cotton T-shirts, are not eligible to display the new label.
Whether a life cycle assessment (LCA), tracing all environmental costs and benefits from a product’s incipience to the end of its useful life, should be required for bio-based products is still being debated. To date, no LCAs are required in order to label a product as “USDA Bio-Based” although initially in the BioPreferred Program, they were. The lack of this requirement has raised concern among some environmental groups, fearing that the new label adds to confusion about the meaning of “sustainable” versus “natural” or “biological” (i.e., non-petroleum based) products. The USDA states in its Federal Register announcement that it “is currently continuing its efforts to formulate a final decision on any requirements to perform LCA analyses on products in conjunction with the BioPreferred Program.” Final decisions will be published in the Federal Register.