Natural Foods Merchandiser

Wal-Mart warned on organic labeling violations

In response to a complaint by the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group, Wisconsin state officials cautioned Wal-Mart against placing green "Wal-Mart organics" shelf tags in front of foods that are not certified organic.

Wal-Mart issued a statement saying that the problem may have been due to an "execution signing issue" in which an organics shelf tag was "inadvertently or mistakenly placed by or accidentally shift[ed] in front of the wrong item."

"In order to aid our associates in maintaining accuracy to better serve our customers, we have sent updated procedural guidelines to our stores for proper management of this signing," the statement said, noting that organics signs will be "checked periodically for accuracy."

Cornucopia's complaint against Wal-Mart was filed with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in January after Cornucopia representatives visited Wal-Marts in five states—Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Texas—and found food items incorrectly identified as organic in each store. "The signs were the same in all the stores we visited, across the board," said Cornucopia co-director Mark Kastel.

Specifically, he said, Stonyfield Farm natural yogurt, Florida Crystals natural sugar, Rice Dream nonorganic rice milk and Silk nonorganic soymilk had green "Wal-Mart organics" shelf tags identifying the items by name. In addition, nonorganic lettuce was located in organic produce sections. Photos of the labels can be seen on Cornucopia's Web site,

"In September, we sent a certified letter and e-mail to the Wal-Mart [chief executive officer] telling him about the violations we found," Kastel said. "They had every opportunity to correct these problems, but they didn't." Cornucopia then sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November protesting the labeling as being in violation of the National Organic Program standards.

"We went back to the Wal-Mart stores in January and found the same violations in place in every store," Kastel said, so Cornucopia filed a complaint with its home state of Wisconsin. After visiting several local Wal-Marts, state officials issued a response in early May.

"We caution Wal-Mart that use of the term Wal-Mart Organics in combination with reference to a specific nonorganic product may be considered a misrepresentation and therefore a violation of Section 100.18, Wis. Stats.," wrote James Rabbitt, director of Wisconsin's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a letter to a Wal-Mart attorney. Rabbitt added that the USDA was in agreement with the Wisconsin decision.

However, Rabbitt said that neither the USDA nor the state of Wisconsin found that including nonorganic items in sections labeled organic was in violation of the NOP or the Organic Foods Production Act because the sections also contained certified organic products. The Wal-Mart statement noted that it's corporate policy to mix conventional and organic items on store shelves, and that consumers should always check for the USDA organic label to make sure a product is certified organic.

Kastel believes that policy is misleading. "They put their specialty products in the organic section, like lettuce that's hydroponic but not organic. I could see somebody buying that hydroponic lettuce because it's in the organic section, and then getting home, checking the label and saying, 'Hey, this isn't organic.'"

Rabbitt said as long as Wal-Mart implements measures to ensure that nonorganic products don't have shelf tags identifying them as organic, the state of Wisconsin won't pursue the Cornucopia complaint any further. "Please be aware, however, that we will be monitoring Wal-Mart's practices in the future to ensure continued compliance," he wrote.

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