WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) — A farm policy group Tuesday asked the U.S. Agriculture Department to investigate whether giant retailer Target Corp. misled consumers by claiming some soy milk it sold was organic.
The Cornucopia Institute's complaint said Target advertised Silk soy milk in newspapers with the term "organic" written on the carton's label when in fact the soy milk on sale in stores for $2.50 a half gallon was properly labeled as not coming from organically grown soybeans.
The manufacturer, Dallas-based Dean Foods, has shifted products away from organically grown soybeans, the complaint said.
"Either this was a willful attempt to deceive customers and defraud them or more likely incompetence and lack of oversight by management," said Mark Kastel, an analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. "I would guess this was done in error. It is hard to believe that people at this company were stupid enough to think they could get away with this."
Jana O'Leary, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based Target, said the company was researching the complaint.
Consumers typically pay more for organic food because they believe it is free of hormones or pesticides and produced with greater respect for the environment.
Supporters of organic products say the Target incident is part of a growing problem of corporate agribusiness and major retailers blurring the line between natural food products and those grown organically and properly certified as such.
Kastel said Target's actions amount to creating an "organic light" product in the marketplace. "Major food processors have recognized the meteoric rise of the organic industry — and profit potential," he said
Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the USDA's National Organic Program in Washington, D.C., said the Cornucopia Institute's complaint will be reviewed to determine what the next step should be. "If it warrants an investigation, we will do an investigation," she said.
Target could be fined for a "willful violation" of organic certification regulations, Shaffer said.
In the past year, the USDA's organic program has received 160 complaints alleging bogus organic products, she said.
The Cornucopia Institute, a research and educational group that acts as an organic industry watchdog, filed complaints with federal regulators against Wal-Mart in 2006, also alleging misrepresentation of conventional food as organic with improper signs in their stores.
"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, the Cornucopia Institute's research director.