Group Objects to Wal-Mart's Organics

CORNUCOPIA, Wis. Wal-Mart Stores is misrepresenting nonorganic products as organic, according to a watchdog group's formal complaint, filed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Throughout [Wal-Mart's] stores, they identify a number of things as organic, they place these shelf talkers throughout the store and some of these were misplaced, said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute

CORNUCOPIA, Wis. — Wal-Mart Stores is misrepresenting nonorganic products as organic, according to a watchdog group's formal complaint, filed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Throughout [Wal-Mart's] stores, they identify a number of things as organic, they place these shelf talkers throughout the store and some of these were misplaced,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute here.

The misrepresentation was cited as general throughout the retailer's entire store, and more specifically, in dairy and fresh produce coolers, Kastel said. For example, the Stonyfield brand of nonfat yogurt labeled as natural had a Wal-Mart sign placed under it identifying it as organic, he said.

“It's treating a nonorganic item as though it was organic and for those shoppers who aren't as savvy, they might not know,” Kastel said.

In response, a spokeswoman for the retailer accused Cornucopia of bias.

“When you consider the fact that it has been reported that the Cornucopia Institute's co-founder and author of their anti-Wal-Mart study has worked as a paid public relations consultant to a major competitor, it's hard to take their claims seriously,” said Karen Burk, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. “It's unfortunate this organization failed to disclose this bias up front in attacking our company.”

In Wal-Mart's produce department, Kastel told SN he observed approximately 20 produce coolers in a row and there were about three or four segments identified by signs at the top as organic. Some but not all of the items were organic, he said. The signs left shoppers with the impression that the entire area was a complete organic section, Kastel said.

Cornucopia is not attacking Wal-Mart, and in fact had taken preliminary steps in an attempt to remedy the situation, Kastel said. When those efforts were ignored, only then did the group file a legal complaint with the USDA, he said.

The Cornucopia Institute initially wrote a letter, dated Sept. 13 and addressed to Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's chief executive officer, expressing concern that Wal-Mart is cheapening the value of the organic label by sourcing products from industrial-scale factory farms and China.

“The letter actually had more to do with the report we came out with,” Kastel said, referring to Cornucopia's report, “Wal-Mart Rolls Out Organic Products — Market Expansion or Market Delusion?”

The group's complaint was filed a month after the letter was sent out through certified mail with return receipt and after Cornucopia's representatives visited other Wal-Mart stores and observed more label misrepresentations.

“In the P.S., we said that we found these labeling violations that we would like to bring to their attention and we would like you to take immediate action,” Kastel said. “We were concerned that they didn't, even after a month.”

The letter, sent by Cornucopia, stated that Wal-Mart was driving down the price and compromising the integrity of organic food in the marketplace by inventing a “new” organic — food from corporate agribusiness, factory farms, and cheap imports of questionable quality.

“We are afraid that you are grossly miscalculating your move into organics and underestimating the knowledge and commitment of the organic consumer. Those buying organic food are comfortable paying the historic premiums because they think that part of their purchase dollar supports a different kind of environmental, animal husbandry, and economic justice ethic,” the letter from Cornucopia stated.

In response, Burk said Wal-Mart buys “more U.S. agricultural products than any other retailer in the world.

“We take pride in buying organic foods from local suppliers of all sizes for distribution to stores in their areas,” she said.

“This helps suppliers make more of their products available to more consumers, and provides our customers with more choices,” Burk added.

Cornucopia's complaint asks the USDA to fully investigate the allegations. Federal organic regulations provide for fines of up to $10,000 per violation for proven incidents of misrepresentation of organic foods.