For Immediate Release
Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042
Off Target - Major Retailer Accused of Organic Improprieties
State and Federal Complaints Allege Mislabeling
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn - A public interest group that focuses on food and agriculture, The
Cornucopia Institute, announced this week that it had filed formal complaints
with the USDA's organic program, and Wisconsin
officials, alleging that Target Corporation has misled consumers into thinking
some conventional food items it sells are organic.
The complaints are the latest salvo into a growing controversy whereas
corporate agribusiness and major retailers have been accused of blurring the
line between "natural" products and food that has been grown,
processed and properly certified organic under tight federal standards.
"Major food processors have recognized the meteoric rise of the
organic industry, and profit potential, and want to create what is in essence
‘organic light,' taking advantage of the market cachet but not
being willing to do the heavy lifting required to earn the valuable USDA
organic seal," said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at
The Wisconsin-based farm policy research group discovered Target
nationally advertised Silk soymilk in newspapers with the term
"organic" pictured on the carton's label, when in fact the
manufacturer, Dean Foods, had quietly shifted their products away from
Dean Foods, and its WhiteWave division, received media scrutiny, and
industry condemnation, this past spring for not notifying retailers or changing
the UPC codes, when they quietly switched to conventional soybeans in their
Dean/WhiteWave also received heat in the organic food and agriculture
community when they decided to convert some of their Horizon products, the
leading organic label in terms of sales volume, to cheaper "natural"
(conventional) ingredients. "This really hit a nerve because one of
these new Horizon products, Little Blends
yogurt, is aimed specifically at toddlers, at an early stage of development,
where the nutritional superiority of organic food, and its utility in avoiding
chemical residues in our food, is so critically important," Kastel added.
A front-page story in the Chicago
Tribune in July outlined a consumer survey that showed the public
was unclear about the difference between natural and organic labels and that
some corporations, particularly Dean Foods, were taking advantage of the
confusion in the marketplace.
The story quoted Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton
Group which conducted the survey, as saying, "They [consumers] think
‘natural' is regulated by the government but that organic
isn't, and of course it's just the opposite."
In fact, a strict set of farm and food handling standards have been
developed and implemented by the federal government to regulate food that
qualifies for the USDA's organic seal. For the most part, food
products containing "natural' ingredients represent little more
than soothing marketing puffery aimed at consumers.
This is not the first tangle involving Cornucopia and Target. The
giant Minneapolis-based retailer's own upscale private label food line,
Archer Farms, which blurs the line selling both natural and organically labeled
food, came under scrutiny when Cornucopia discovered that it's organic milk
supplier, Colorado-based Aurora Dairy, was flagrantly violating federal
organic livestock standards and filed a complaint with the USDA.
USDA investigators determined that Aurora had willfully violated 14 federal
organic regulations. In what was condemned as a "sweetheart
deal" by some in the organic industry, the Bush administration allowed Aurora to stay in
business. Unlike some other retailers, Target stuck with Aurora as their milk
supplier for their Archer Farms label.
"In an industry where educational achievement and passion are the
common denominators in describing its clientele, Target could certainly be
viewed as arrogant to think they can take advantage of consumers by ignoring
both the spirit and letter of the laws governing organic commerce," Kastel
SuperTarget stores have gained significant market share around the
country and are, according to a recent Nielsen/Shelby report, now the number
two grocer in Minnesota's
Twin Cities market.
"We feel very
strongly about taking seriously the use of the regulated term: Organic," said Lindy Bannister, general
manager of The Wedge, the nation's largest member-owned cooperative
store. "Although we welcome all the players that bring organic food
to people, we must insist that, for the unregulated (the non-certified
retailers), they at the very least should proof their ads as they are subject
to a federal fine for misusing that regulated term."
This is not the first time The Cornucopia Institute has found that
specialty retailers, like the nation's approximately 275 co-op grocers, have faced unethical competition
from big-box chains. After the group filed complaints with federal and
state regulators against Wal-Mart in 2006, also alleging misrepresention of
conventional food as organic with improper signage in their stores, the
nation's largest retailer signed consent agreements with the USDA and the state
committing to change their practices.
"Wal-Mart did indeed clean up its act, as we expect Target to do,
but it should not take the judicious oversight of an industry watchdog to cause
these giant corporations to comply with the law, said Will
Fantle, research director for the Wisconsin-based
Cornucopia. "One of the reasons these companies can undercut other
retailers is they do not invest in the kind of management expertise necessary
to prevent problems of this nature from occurring."
"It's bad enough Target steals real
farmers' identities with that fake 'Archer Farms' label," said Barth Anderson, a consumer long involved in the
organic movement and chief blogger at Fair Food Fight. "But blurring
the lines between natural and organic is just plain wrong. Target is
trying to profiteer at the expense of consumers like me."
Anderson was adamant that, "There's nothing wrong with larger
corporations being involved in organics but if they squeeze out ethical
companies by cutting corners, or play fast and loose by the rules, everyone
loses - real farmers, organic consumers and retailers alike.
Blurring the lines between natural and organic is just plain trying to
profiteer at the expense of consumers like me."
The complaint filed with the USDA's National Organic Program can
be viewed here:
Photos of Mr. Kastel and Mr. Fantle, along with a graphic file of the
Cornucopia logo, are available upon request.
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The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit. Their web page can be viewed at www.cornucopia.org.