MINNEAPOLIS — Target Corp. here became the latest front in an ongoing battle between organic activists and major organic dairy operations earlier this month, when an Indiana couple — Patrick and Caryn Hudspeth — filed suit against the retailer, alleging that its private-label Archer Farms organic milk was fraudulently labeled.
Filed in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, the suit seeks class-action status for any shoppers who purchased the brand from Dec. 5, 2003, through Oct. 15, 2007.
The suit hinges on developments earlier this year involving Boulder, Colo.-based Aurora Organic Dairy, which supplies Target's organic milk. For the past two years, Aurora has been under constant pressure from food activism groups — such as the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute — that allege the dairy does not provide its cows with sufficient access to pasture to merit U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification.
In August, the USDA agreed, finding Aurora deficient in several areas of operation required to bear the agency's official seal, including insufficient record-keeping, improperly transitioned cows and insufficient access to pasture. As part of an agreement with regulators, the company is making several upgrades to its dairies to correct these problems, and has retained the right to label its products organic while being monitored for a one-year probationary period. In October, OCA and Cornucopia used this ruling to launch a class-action lawsuit against the dairy.
Target cited this USDA consent agreement in its official statement to the press, noting that, “this lawsuit is inconsistent with the fact that the United States Department of Agriculture has reviewed and confirmed the organic certification of Aurora Dairy Farms and its products. We are not aware of any ongoing investigations of Aurora Dairy Farms. It is disappointing that these types of lawsuits are attempting to override the USDA and regulate the organic industry and retailers with their own beliefs of what constitutes an organic product.”
While that logic may be difficult to dispute — the USDA, not Target, has said Aurora can continue to label its products with the USDA organic seal — this suit is the first filed directly against a retailer in this issue, and could possibly be a harbinger of cases to come, as activist groups seek leverage against suppliers by targeting the retailers they serve.
Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, said his organization had not helped file the suit against Target, although he had offered advice after being contacted by the plaintiffs' legal team. He said he does believe that retailers — particularly retailers that source organics as part of their private-label programs — bear part of the responsibility for vetting suppliers.
“If you partner with unethical folks — through expediency or through a desire to massage the already healthy margins on organic foods — you're going to pay the price,” he said.
According to Kastel, similar actions will soon be under way against Costco, Safeway and Wild Oats at the U.S. District Court of Colorado in Denver.
The USDA's National Organic Standards Board is currently working on supplemental language that would clarify its vague “access to pasture” requirement for dairy cattle.