Organic-food shoppers are making a rude discovery at their grocers' refrigerated display case.
"White Wave Silk Vanilla Soymilk is no longer Organic," declares a hand-lettered sign at the two Sunflower Shoppes in Tarrant County.
Silk has more than 70 percent of the market. Until this month, Sunflower routinely re-ordered it, thinking it was certified organic.
But its maker, Dallas-based Dean Foods, quietly removed the word "organic" from the familiar blue cartons Jan. 15 and switched to cheaper beans -- not genetically modified but likely grown with chemical fertilizer and possibly pesticide -- then called it "all natural" soy milk.
Dean did not change the product's identifying bar code or package design, nor did it significantly alter the price -- moves that would have triggered scrutiny by store owners, some of whom now feel duped. A number of other Silk products were similarly changed from organic without a new bar code, Dean confirmed.
A reintroduced Silk organic line -- in green cartons -- carries new bar codes but is not as widely available.
"We don't want to be part of customer deception," said Erika McCarthy, a member of the third generation of her family to operate the Sunflower health food stores in Fort Worth and Colleyville.
Dean says it gave advance notice to its distributors and blamed them for not following through with independent grocers like Sunflower. It released to the Star-Telegram a form letter that distributors were supposed to send to retailers explaining that the nonorganic soy milk would carry the organic product's bar code. National distributors Tree of Life and UNFI did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Specialty food markets contacted in California, Delaware and Texas said they did not discover the switch for six to nine months.
None has yet to be notified about the reformulation of what had been their stores' biggest-selling soy milk product, they said.
Roy Beard, who has operated Roy's Natural Market in Dallas for 41 years, said he hadn't realized there was a change until contacted by a reporter last week. He said retaining the same bar code "was troubling," but "I don't believe in soy milk anyways, although I stock it for customers."
McCarthy said: "Did we miss something? Our concern is that if it's going from 'organic' to 'natural' we need to be informed. But we only found out about it now."
What it means
The "all natural" label on Silk cartons is a loose term, in contrast with "certified organic," which has strict federal guidelines that products must meet.
"Dean has only added to the marketplace confusion between 'natural' and 'organic,' as they definitely do not mean the same thing, and 'natural' requires no verification whatsoever," said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist at Consumer Reports.
Sara Loveday, a spokeswoman for Dean's WhiteWave unit, said "all natural" means that the drink contains no artificial ingredients and that the soybeans used were not genetically modified.
However, such soybeans are still typically grown with chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides when necessary, said professor Gary Stacey, associate director of the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at the University of Missouri.