Wal-Mart in Trouble Again Over Organic Marketing Practices
Cornucopia, WI—The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based public interest group that focuses on food and agriculture, today filed legal complaints with the USDA alleging that Wal-Mart, and a North Carolina-based company, HOMS LLC, are violating the USDA organic standards by using conventional agricultural oils, and other ingredients, in pest control products that bear the word organic and the green “USDA organic” seal. The pest control products in question are marketed under the Bio Block label (see front of bottle, back of bottle, and company webpage product screenshot).
A debate has been raging for years whether non-food products, such as pet food and personal care products, are included in the strict regulations that determine the use of the word “organic” on packaging. Most of those products at least had organic ingredients involved in their manufacture, whereas Bio Block pest control products contain not a single organically produced ingredient.
However, there has never been any question that the green “USDA Organic” seal can be used only by producers that follow the rigorous standards mandated by Congress and administered by the USDA’s National Organic Program.
In addition to using the word organic prominently on its label, HOMS uses the USDA seal on at least one of its Bio Block products without specifying that organic ingredients were used, and without disclosing the identity of the organic certifying agent, which is also required by federal organic regulations.
“This amounts to, allegedly, illegally usurping the value of the organic label,” says Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at Cornucopia. “The USDA Organic seal is meaningful to consumers and should not be used frivolously. This places ethical industry participants at a competitive disadvantage.”
The Bio Block products that appear to violate the organic standards were discovered on the shelves of Wal-Mart stores, resurfacing concerns long held by The Cornucopia Institute, and others in the organic industry, that the giant corporation has failed to take the organic standards seriously.
For years, Cornucopia has criticized Wal-Mart for inventing a “new” organic—food from corporate agribusiness, factory farms, and cheap Chinese imports of questionable authenticity.
Wal-Mart’s store brand organic milk, for example, comes from Aurora Dairy in Boulder, Colorado. In 2007, federal investigators found that Aurora had “willfully” violated 14 tenets of the organic standards, including confining their cattle to feedlots, instead of grazing, and bringing thousands of illegal conventional cows into their organic operation.
Inside Wal-Mart stores, Cornucopia researchers at the time discovered that the company was mislabeling conventional foods as organic, including yogurt, sugar, rice milk, soy milk and produce. Cornucopia notified Wal-Mart’s CEO of the problems with in-store signage, but the corporation ignored these concerns until officials of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the USDA took enforcement actions against Wal-Mart in 2007.
“These instances of mislabeling are emblematic of the company’s lack of investment in knowledgeable staff, its inexperience, and its questionable commitment to organics,” says Kastel.
While Wal-Mart vowed to solve its false and misleading in-store signage problems, Cornucopia says it has failed to ensure that its store brand organic milk, and some of its other product offerings, come from ethical family farmers following the spirit and letter of the organic law.
Now the organic industry watchdog alleges Wal-Mart is once again marketing organic products fraudulently.
Cornucopia contends that it is not only up to farmers, food processors and certifiers to ensure that foods labeled “organic” are truly organic, but that retailers play an important role as well.
Retailers can and do invest in the resources necessary to ensure organic integrity in their stores. The Wedge, a member-owned cooperative grocer in Minneapolis, handled Bio Block pesticides very differently from Wal-Mart when recently approached by one of HOMS’ distributors.
Since The Wedge has invested years in recruiting, hiring, and training qualified staff, it came as no surprise that one of their buyers questioned the legality of Bio Block’s labels.
The Wedge is one of about 275 cooperative grocers in the country, which collectively helped pioneer the growth in the organic industry. The Wedge was one of the first certified organic retailers in the country and has a full-time Organic Certification and Sustainability Coordinator, Susan Stewart.
“We take the confidence our members and shoppers have in The Wedge very seriously,” said Stewart. “Our job is to protect the integrity of the organic label and the authenticity of the food and products we offer in our store.”
Cornucopia states that this collaboration between farmers, organic processors and retailers, in partnership with the USDA, makes the organic label the gold standard in helping consumers choose safe and ethically produced food.
“As an organic industry watchdog, we make sure that stakeholders in the organic community, like The Wedge, are not placed at a competitive disadvantage by outfits like Wal-Mart that are attempting to profiteer from the trust consumers have in the organic label,” stated Cornucopia’s Kastel.
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.