USDA Investigates Cornucopia Allegations Against Wal-Mart

In November, the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute filed a complaint with the US Department of Agriculture alleging that retail giant Wal-Mart had mislabelled non-organic products as organic in US stores. The Institute, which represents smaller organic farmers, and also engages in educational and research efforts, has been one of the chief critics of Wal-Mart's aggressive moves into the organic market, and, according to the UK Independent, has called the mislabelling "tantamount to consumer fraud."

Earlier this month, Cornucopia also filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and placed more photographs on its website that show clear problems with signage for grocery items that do not meet USDA organic standards (like the one above). In response, Wal-Mart has issued a statement claiming that the problems involve signage and execution errors rather than attempts to mislead consumers:

It's important to understand that Wal-Mart itself does not certify food as organic. The suppliers and producers of organic foods are responsible for proper certification. Organic foods sold in our stores are products that carry the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) labels which have been certified as such and meet the USDA standards. At Wal-Mart, we believe strongly that USDA standards for organic products must not be compromised. Our customers who buy organic products expect them to meet these standards and we agree.

At Wal-Mart, we've discovered that many customers consider it easier to find the organic alternatives they want if they're mixed with conventional offerings on our shelves. That's why our customers will find dry grocery, frozen and dairy organic offerings displayed alongside their brand name conventional counterparts.

Organic selections can be found throughout our stores with green signing for customer convenience for easier identification. Although Wal-Mart has more than 2,000 locations that may offer up to 200 organic selections in addition to thousands of non-organic offerings, it is simply an execution problem should a green organic identifying tag be inadvertently or mistakenly placed by or accidentally shift in front of the wrong item. The USDA certification label is featured on the packaging of the organic selections we offer for further customer information and verification.

We have sent procedural guidelines to our stores for proper management of these identification tags and continue to work with our store associates to have the identifying tags checked periodically for accuracy.

Both the Institute and the company have valid points: the scale of Wal-Mart's operations make mistakes inevitable, but the photos posted on the Institute's web site clearly show the word "organics" on signs for non-organic products. The company is right again that the USDA certification symbol is the only official label that designates a product has met federal standards for organic status, but the Institute is right to wonder whether Wal-Mart shoppers will see the signs and assume they're buying an organic product.

We hope, regardless of Wal-Mart's intentions, that this situation gets straightened out. Organics are a "new frontier" for large grocery chains, and as the largest of the large, Wal-Mart will set the standards for marketing organic goods to a wider audience. They've created a range of impressive goals for moving in more sustainable directions, and asked that they be judged by the actions they take. That's a fair request; it's also one that could come back to haunt the company if errors like these continue. ::UK Independent via The New Zealand Herald

Tags: Walmart | Wisconsin