Avalon Natural Products, one of the industry´s big manufacturers, lobbied for the legislation. Its CEO, Mark Egide, called it “a great achievement for consumer protection.” But Bronner says the California standards were contrived by big companies to preempt tougher rules: “It´s just the fox guarding the henhouse.”

But nothing gets under the skin of strict-standard advocates more than hydrosols. Also known as floral water, hydrosols consist of tea water infused with certified organic herbs or flowers. In the past, they were considered to be a disposable byproduct of making essential oils or sold as lightly scented skin spritzers. Major manufacturers such as Avalon, Jason and Nature´s Gate—the three accused of misleading consumers at the protest—count the entire water content of the scented hydrosols as organic content. Critics say that´s deceptive.

Adam Eidinger, spokesman for the grassroots nonprofit Organic Consumers Association, sponsor of the Expo East protest, says that without counting the water, few of those watered-down products could come close to meeting even California´s 70 percent standard. Never mind that organic food standards explicitly exclude water.

But hydrosol-counting manufacturers object to being portrayed as wrongdoers. “I play by all the rules,” says Light, the Jason chairman, at the Expo East showcase. Jason products are labeled “Pure, Natural and Organic,” though they contain synthetics and preservatives and count hydrosols.

“That´s not illegal,” says Light. But he concedes there aren´t many rules to follow and won´t be until the industry agrees on standards. “Bringing people together at a table and working out our differences is the way to do this,” he says. “Not taking this out to the streets.”

Avalon´s Egide says his Petaluma, Calif., company is prepared to accept whatever standards emerge from the Organic Trade Association´s standards task force he co-founded. “If a year from now the OTA feels that they can´t accept hydrosols, that´s fine,” says Egide. “The hydrosol issue hasn´t been decided yet. We´ll do what we need to do to conform when it is.”

Barbara Robinson, deputy administrator of the USDA´s Agricultural Marketing Service, which implements the organic food standard, doesn´t expect the dust to settle for five or six years. “People feel pretty heated about these things,” she says. “I think it´s premature for us to get into it. We´d just be refereeing.”

Back to the Garden

The uphill road curves so sharply past Kaye and Hahn´s “Terressentials Organic” farm and shop that it´s easy to miss. With Catoctin Mountain as the eastern backdrop, their “experimental garden” is overgrown with Russian sage, Chinese rhubarb, lavender, marshmallow blooms. The barn is the production room. The small laboratory smells of strong mint oil that´s being blended with beeswax to make lip protector.

Inside the retail shop, shelves are lined neatly with Terressentials´ 80 products—Luscious Lemon Body Creme, Organic Seductive Spice Anointing Body Oil, Orange-White Chocolate Lip Protector. They sell mostly here and on their Web site. They´re carried by about 30 stores nationwide, from the three stores of Rockville-based My Organic Market to the online Diamond Organics in California.

But their challenge is of David-and-Goliath proportions.

Over mugs of organic Colombian coffee, Kaye and Hahn swap complaints.

“Remember that store that had that bright white lotion in a bottle?” says Kaye.

Its front label listed blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. On the ingredient list on the back were the additives and preservatives.

“Take all of these herbs and berries and put them in a blender. Now tell me, why is that lotion white? Because it was stripped, bleached and processed!”

Hahn laughs. “No, no. Get 10 different juices and take an eyedropper drop from each and put them into a 55-gallon drum of water. That would be clear. Then you add the preservatives and other stuff.”

Kaye adds: “And people´ll say, ‘Wow, this is so natural!’ You can see right through it!”

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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David Bronner at the trade show, critical of his competitors' products.

Some products labeled “organic” contain a single-digit percentage of organic content.