Target Corp. has admitted to wrongly advertising soy milk as organic, the U.S. Agriculture Department said in a letter announcing the conclusion of its investigation into a complaint filed by a farm policy group.
Target told the USDA's National Organic Program that it is reviewing its processes to ensure that it doesn't make the mistake again, according to a Nov. 12 letter sent by the USDA to the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.
The Institute made the letter public on Monday. It filed the complaint with the USDA in October alleging that 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 was properly labeled as not coming from organically grown soybeans.
Target told the USDA that it used an outdated photo in the September advertisement that promoted the product in a carton that it no longer uses, said the letter from Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of USDA's National Organic Program.
McEvoy said in the letter that the case was closed.
Minneapolis-based Target issued a statement saying use of the photo was inadvertent and it has updated its procedures to prevent future errors.
Cornucopia Institute co-director Mark Kastel said he didn't think Target was purposefully trying to defraud people, but the mistake was more a sign of how a large retailer doesn't properly train employees to prevent such mistakes.
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.
At the same time it announced resolution in the Target complaint, Cornucopia asked the USDA to investigate Dallas-based Dean Foods for how it advertises the Silk product on its Web site.
The complaint alleged that the Silk product, made by Dean Foods' WhiteWave-MorningStar division, was shown on the WhiteWave Web site with the term "organic" next to it even though it has been using conventional soybeans since earlier this year.
Cornucopia said in its letter Monday to USDA that misrepresenting a product as organic when it is not undermines the integrity of organic food production and damages consumer confidence.
Kastel said the image was on the company's Web site on Monday morning and a screen shot of it was included in the complaint. However, within two hours of Cornucopia's press release going out, the image in question had been removed from the Web site.
"We've already had an impact," Kastel said. "But certainly the fact that they misrepresented this for the entire year until today is reprehensible for a company of this size that has an extensive staff."
WhiteWave spokesman Jarod Ballentine did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
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.
Similar to the Target complaint, Wal-Mart promised to do a better job, Kastel said. Spot checks of Wal-Mart stores across the country since the 2006 complaint haven't revealed any problems with advertising, he said.
On the Net:
U.S. Department of Agriculture: http://www.usda.gov
Cornucopia Institute: http://www.cornucopia.org