While the Environmental Protection Agency had threatened up to $1 million in fines being levied against The North Face, the company eventually settled allegations it made unsubstantiated public health product claims by writing a $207,500 check to the EPA.
On Sept. 22, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 9 office in San Francisco announced it had filed a lawsuit against VF Corp. (NYSE: VFC) for the alleged sale and distribution of unregistered pesticides through its The North Face brand. (Click here to read the EPA news release, and click here to read our Sept. 23, 2009, story, “EPA sues The North Face -- takes issue with use of ‘disease-causing bacteria’ prevention wording.”)
SNEWS® asked TNF for a comment regarding the settlement, and was told the company was making no public comments or conducting interviews other than releasing an email statement. It read in part, “Although we disputed the EPA’s assertions, when EPA representatives initially contacted VF in March 2008 with concerns about marketing verbiage accompanying certain footwear products, we immediately stopped making the marketing claims that they had concerns about. We also removed the verbiage from product hang tags and our website, and revised the product packaging accordingly. The case that was settled concerned the marketing verbiage. The footwear itself remains the same and utilizes the same product, registered with the EPA, as intended for safe use in footwear.”
At issue was a line taken from Agion, the company that produces the antimicrobial product TNF used, that said, “AgION antimicrobial silver agent inhibits the growth of disease-causing bacteria.” Apparently, according to EPA officials, TNF would have been on safe ground had it written instead, “AgION antimicrobial silver agent inhibits the growth of bacteria in the shoe fabric.” While a subtle difference, the first statement implies that disease-causing bacteria are inhibited, and it does not specifically limit the protection to the shoe itself. The concern is the public might take the marketing claim to mean there are human benefits and protection from wearing a shoe with the product. And as such, the EPA registration is no longer valid and TNF was in violation of using an unregistered product.
PR, marketing and catalog copy folks at any company, large and small, should immediately familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations pertaining to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). It governs what a company can and cannot say regarding product descriptions with EPA-registered products. For more information, refer to the official EPA fact sheet on consumer products treated with pesticides by clicking here or download a guide targeted at businesses selling treated products that fall under EPA registration by clicking here.