In a real-life example of the mythical story of David vs. Goliath, organic soybean producers and The Cornucopia Instituteare claiming victory over Dean Foods, the maker of Silk soymilk drink.

The Cornucopia Institute, a public interest group that promotes family scale farming, first reported in May 2009 that Dean Foods had switched its soybean sources from American farms to cheaper organic beans from China.

Its report, titled “Behind the Bean: The Heroes and Charlatans of the Natural and Organic Soy Foods Industry,” claimed that Dean Foods, the maker of Silk soymilk drink, had largely abandoned using organic soybeans altogether.  The Cornucopia Institute said that in making the drink, Dean Foods had switched from organic soybeans to less expensive, conventionally grown soybeans that the company was calling “natural.”

“Dean Foods has been roundly criticized for taking the organic out of Silk, and now the marketplace and consumers are passing their judgment,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst.

“They took what once was a pioneering 100 percent organic brand, before they acquired the company in 2003, and cheapened the product at the expense of American farmers and consumers. Now they are paying a price for their naked profiteering,” Kastel added.

Following publication of the report, the natural/organic foods retailer Whole Foods Market switched its organic soymilk source from Dean Foods to Earth Balance.  In August, the national retailer told the Denver Post it wanted Earth Balance’s soymilk products to contain only domestically grown soybeans carrying the organic label.

When Dean initially purchased the Silk label, some American farmers were excited about the possibility of partnering with the company to further grow the Silk brand and keep the demand for domestic soybeans high.  Instead, some critics said, the company seemed to turn on American farmers, demanding they compete on pricing with Chinese imported beans.

“White Wave (the operating division of Dean Foods that markets Silk and Horizon organic milk) had the opportunity to push organic and sustainable agriculture to incredible heights of production by working with North American farmers and traders to get more land in organic production, but what they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer, taking away any attraction for conventional farmers to make the move into sustainable agriculture,” said Merle Kramer, a marketer for the Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative.

In the Denver Post article, a Dean spokesperson explained that staying with domestic organic soybeans would have resulted in price increases. According to The Cornucopia Institute, this statement stands at odds with the reality of falling farmgate prices for organic soybeans in recent years.

After Dean’s failure to change the labeling and packaging of the Silk product to reflect that it was being made with “natural” soybeans rather than organic, Cornucopia filed a formal complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture‘s National Organic Program.

“Consumers and retailers repeatedly reported to us that they were deceived and ended up unknowingly buying Silk products with conventional soybeans,” said Cornucopia’s Kastel. “We know of numerous retailers that ultimately pulled Silk products from their store shelves over the gross misrepresentation of the soymilk product,” Kastel added.

In addition to Earth Balance, other soymilk companies such as 8th Continent, Eden Foods and Organic Valley are looking for a piece of the organic market.  All of the companies are competing for Silk’s customer base.

For more information on soy foods, The Cornucopia Institute maintains a soy foods scorecard on its website, which provides information and ratings of soymilk and various soy foods by rating what it says is the integrity of the product’s production.  The scorecard also indicates whether brands buy products from American family farmers or from China.