April 21 (Bloomberg) -- A Florida judge allowed a lawsuit to proceed that claims Whole Foods Market Inc. violated the state’s deceptive trade-practices law by selling frozen vegetables from China grown in a polluted region by prisoners and certified as organic.
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner yesterday denied the grocery chain’s motion to dismiss the suit filed on behalf of the Southeast Consumer Alliance Inc., a non-profit organization based in Boca Raton, Florida.
The suit claims that Whole Foods knew that its Silver River supplier, based in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, was actually a front company for a network of farms where Chinese prisoners are forced to work and that the farms are irrigated from a highly polluted river.
The suit also claims that Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods knew that the company providing the initial organic certification is owned by the Chinese government, which also owns the farms, creating a conflict of interest.
“They’re doing everything they can to conceal this bogus or shaky certification,” Bruce Baldwin, the group’s attorney, said. “Whole Foods brags about its social accountability audits of all of its foreign suppliers. So either they knew about these forced labor camps, or they didn’t actually check.”
A spokeswoman for the grocery store chain didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment. Whole Foods attorney Christopher Wayne Wadsworth said he wasn’t authorized to comment on the case.
In court filings, Wadsworth argued that the suit “amounts to little more than an unsupported slur against China’s farming industry and a meritless attack on Whole Foods stated corporate values and goals.”
Baldwin said Whole Foods pulled many of its Chinese frozen vegetables off the shelves after he filed the suit but that the company continues to sell Chinese soy beans. The case, which is seeking class-action, or group, certification, was originally filed in 2009 and amended last year to include the deceptive trade practices claim.
To back up his claims, Baldwin filed exhibits of news reports about forced labor and pollution in China.
The case is Southern Consumer Alliance Inc. v. Whole Foods Market Inc., 09-cv-92727CA, Miami-Dade County Circuit Court (Miami).
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