MINNEAPOLIS, MN: 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 and Minnesota 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 Cornucopia.
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 organics.
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 core-products.
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 affirmed.
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 misrepresentation 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 of Wisconsin 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."