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CORNUCOPIA, Wis. -- The Cornucopia Institute here, which describes itself as an "organic farming watchdog," has filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA to look into allegations of illegal "organic" food distribution by Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Cornucopia said it has documented cases of nonorganic foods being sold as organic in the megaretailer's grocery departments.
Earlier this year, Wal-Mart undertook an initiative to greatly increase the number of organic foods for sale in its stores, at much lower prices than the competition.
"We first noticed that Wal-Mart was using in-store signage to misidentify conventional, nonorganic food as organic in their upscale-market test store in Plano, Texas," said Cornucopia's Mark Kastel in a statement. The group consequently visited a number of other Wal-Mart stores in the Midwest, and reported similar conditions in both produce and dairy sections.
Cornucopia informed Wal-Mart c.e.o. Lee Scott of the situation by letter on Sept. 13, but, according to the group, the chain took no steps to correct the situation. Federal organic regulations stipulate fines of up to $10,000 per violation for incidents of organic food misrepresentation.
In September the institute also issued a white paper, "Wal-Mart Rolls Out Organic Products -- Market Expansion or Market Delusion?" The publication charges Wal-Mart with cheapening the value of the organic label by sourcing products from industrial-scale factory farms and such Third World nations as China.
"We are proud to offer customers the products they want at a price they can afford, including a wide variety of USDA-certified organic products," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk wrote to Progressive Grocer in an e-mail.
In response to the group’s allegations, she said: “When you consider the fact that it has been reported that the Cornucopia Institute's co-founder and author of their anti-Wal-Mart study has worked as a paid public relations consultant to a major competitor, it's hard to take their claims seriously….It's unfortunate this organization failed to disclose this bias upfront in attacking our company."
According to Burk, "Wal-Mart," which purchases more agricultural products than any other retailer in the world, "is committed to offer organic food selections that carry the USDA labels which have been certified as such and meet the USDA standards."