The federal complaints focus on the sale of milk from Boulder, Colo.-based Aurora Organic Dairy, which recently agreed to change its practices after the U.S. Department of Agriculture found more than a dozen violations of organic standards.
The lawsuits allege that Costco Wholesale Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Safeway Inc. and Wild Oats Markets Inc. sold Aurora's milk under their own in-house brand names.
The brands include Costco's Kirkland and Target's Archer Farms, and the milk was sold in cartons marked "USDA organic," typically with pictures of pastures or other bucolic scenes, the lawsuits allege.
"That's not even close to the reality of where this milk was coming from," said Steve Berman, a Seattle lawyer whose firm is among those suing. "These cows are all penned in factory-confinement conditions."
Aurora denies selling non-organic milk.
The lawsuits seek class-action status on behalf of people who bought the milk and ask for their money back as well as punitive damages and attorneys' fees.
Several of the companies declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment, but Target, of Minneapolis, said it stands behind Aurora's organic milk.
"This lawsuit is inconsistent with the fact that the USDA has reviewed and confirmed the organic certification of Aurora dairy farms and its products," the company said in a statement.
Consumers typically pay more for organic food because they believe it is free of hormones or pesticides and produced with greater respect for the environment.
Large corporate players insist they can farm organically on a large scale, while sustainable family farms complain that such operations are not really organic and contribute to surpluses that drive down prices, making it harder for them to compete.
Aurora is one of the nation's largest dairies certified organic by the USDA.
After a progressive farm-policy organization complained about Aurora's operations, the USDA found more than a dozen "willful violations" of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act from 2003-06. Among them: that cows had little access to pasture, that Aurora moved its cows back and forth between conventional and organic farms, and that it sold milk as organic that did not meet federal standards.
Aurora agreed to change some of its practices in a settlement with the USDA this summer, and it has reduced the number of cows at its Platteville, Colo., facility from 4,000 to about 975, said company spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele. But it was allowed to keep its organic certification and was put on probation for a year.
Over the past 18 months, the company has also renovated its Platteville operation to increase its pastureland from 325 to 400 acres and make other improvements, Tuitele said.
"Any lawsuits claiming the milk we were selling was not organic have no merit," she said.
Aurora itself has been sued by some consumers, but lawsuits filed in federal court in Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis and San Francisco in the last two weeks are the first to accuse the retailers of misleading their customers.
Target said in its statement that "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."
But Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute in Wisconsin, said the USDA should have revoked Aurora's certification. The Cornucopia Institute is not involved in the lawsuits but investigated Aurora and brought it to the USDA's attention.
Kastel said Cornucopia repeatedly told the companies now under fire about Aurora's practices.
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© 2007 Associated Press