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Organics Watchdog Group Claims Victory Against Wal-Mart

Accused Retailer of Misidentifying Products but State, USDA Find No Violation

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- A Wisconsin group that accused Wal-Mart Stores of misidentifying organic food products is claiming a victory as a result of a letter from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture to the giant retailer. But Wal-Mart believes the group is blowing things out of proportion.
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Although Wal-Mart has not been charged with breaking any laws, the Cornucopia Institute took credit for what it termed a "formal warning" to Wal-Mart from the Wisconsin agriculture department regarding potentially misleading organic shelf signage.

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What's clear is that neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates organic labeling nationally, nor its Wisconsin counterpart has charged Wal-Mart with violating any labeling or advertising laws.

Cornucopia Institute
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based group that bills itself as an organics and farm-policy watchdog, yesterday took credit for what it termed a "formal warning" to Wal-Mart from the Wisconsin agriculture department regarding organic shelf signage.

Specifically, a letter dated May 4 from James Rabbitt, of the Wisconsin department's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the department concurred with findings the USDA sent in a separate letter to Wal-Mart in February, in which the USDA reportedly said large "Wal-Mart Organics" locator signs the retailer uses don't violate the law, even though they point to shelves with both certified organic and non-certified products.

But the Wisconsin letter goes on to note that green "Wal-Mart Organics" shelf tags "in combination with a reference to a specific non-organic product may be considered to be a misrepresentation" that would violate Wisconsin law. The letter adds that state regulators will continue to monitor Wal-Mart stores to "ensure continued compliance" with the retailer's assurances that such misrepresentations won't occur.

Wal-Mart provided a copy of the Wisconsin letter. It didn't provide a copy of the letter from the USDA, which has yet to respond to Cornucopia's original complaint filed in November.

On its website, Cornucopia.org, the group has photos appearing to show the green tags next to non-certified items in Wal-Mart stores.

Use of the word 'labeling'
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said that while Cornucopia repeatedly has used the term "labeling," Wal-Mart doesn't label any products as organic. The products' makers handle labeling. But she said the retailer had put new protocols in place to ensure none of the green "Wal-Mart Organics" shelf tags are placed so that they could be seen as misidentifying specific products.

"There was never any intention to mislead consumers," the Wal-Mart spokeswoman said. "We simply want to help them find products."

Wal-Mart last week had "thought the matter was resolved," she said. "So we were quite surprised to see a release from them that we felt misrepresented these letters."

The letter from Mr. Rabbitt to Cornucopia said Wisconsin found no violation in the large locator signs directing consumers to areas with both organic and non-organic products. "We also caution Wal-Mart about the use of the shelf signs that identify individual products as part of the Wal-Mart Organics line of goods," the letter to Cornucopia said.

Claim problem is systemic
Mark Kastel, co-director of Cornucopia, said the group had found the green shelf labels misidentifying non-certified products as organic in dozens of stores throughout five states, indicating the practice was systemic and intentional, not inadvertent.

But he said his two most recent store checks in Wisconsin were the first in which he found no cases of misuse of the green shelf tags, adding that the large "Wal-Mart Organics" section locator signs were also gone from those stores.

"We must be doing something right then," the Wal-Mart spokeswoman said, though she added that there's been no corporate dictum to remove the large organic section locator signs.
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