In response to charges from an organic-industry "watchdog" of "misleading and unethical" claims in its new EarthGrains campaign, Sara Lee has changed some language on the brand's Web site and issued a clarification statement.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, Monday issued a press release slamming the brand's campaign, which focuses on EarthGrains' use of a new "Eco-Grain" as a flour ingredient, with the tagline, "The Plot to Save the Earth, One Field at a Time."
Charlotte Vallaeys, a food/farm policy analyst for the institute, labeled the campaign a "crass example of a corporation trying to capitalize on the valuable market cachet of organic, while intentionally misleading consumers -- without making any meaningful commitment to protect the environment or produce safer and more nutritious food."
The institute also sent a letter to the CEOs of both Sara Lee and National Public Radio (which is carrying underwritten spots for EarthGrains), asking that both suspend promotional activities for EarthGrains until their organizations can complete their own analyses of the institute's "comprehensive study" on the marketing claims being made.
Sara Lee sources Eco-Grain wheat for flour from Cargill affiliate Horizon Milling. According to Sara Lee, Horizon has worked with Idaho-based family farmers to use "precision agriculture" techniques such as satellite imagery and soil sampling, which enable farmers to use fertilizer only where it's needed and reduce energy use and emissions while increasing the wheat yield.
The EarthGrains Web site states that Eco-Grain comprises 20% of the flour now being used in its "100% natural, 24 oz. bread." None of the marketing makes "organic" claims for the brand.
The site states that "even a single loaf" of the bread makes "a small contribution to protecting the environment" when compared with bread made from 100% traditional flour, and provides an interactive tool that lets consumers see estimates (based on "historic observations and studies") of the impact on the environment with every loaf of bread they purchase, such as the amount of reduced fertilizer and acres of farmland saved.
The copy notes that "the more loaves of bread made with Eco-Grain flour that you -- and lots of other people -- buy, the greater the impact," and that EarthGrains is "committed to increasing [the Eco-Grain] percentage as our bread sales increase."
Sara Lee has said that its goal is to increase Eco-Grain content in its EarthGrains breads next year, and that it will introduce some Eco-Grain into its Thin Buns later this year.
The Cornucopia Institute, however, charges that the brand's claims amount to a "shell game" and "greenwashing." Eco-Grain farmers "differ very little from most conventional grain producers" -- they still use petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides -- in contrast to certified organic farmers, who are prohibited by law from using any of these, the group pointed out.
The institute also said that given the 20% Eco-Grain usage level in EarthGrains breads (and no Eco-Grain content in the brand's other products), the estimated 15% reduction in use of synthetic fertilizer realized through Eco-Grain production methods actually amounts to a total reduction in such fertilizer use of "a meager 3%."
Furthermore, it strongly objected to wording on the EarthGrains site (now removed) that Eco-Grain farming methods "have some advantages over organic farming" -- specifically, that organic growers require more land than conventional growers. The institute quoted a Rodale Institute agricultural researcher as saying that this claim "does not hold up against recent scientific data."
The Cornucopia Institute describes its mission as "seeking economic justice for the family-scale farming community" through "research, advocacy and economic development" in support of ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food.
On Monday, Sara Lee released a statement calling the situation a "misunderstanding." The company said that it had "taken the necessary actions to remove any comparable language highlighting the major differences between" Eco-Grain and organic farming, but also stressed that it has made no "organic" claims for the grain or the bread, and has been "completely transparent about the environmental benefits" of Eco-Grain growing methods.
The grain's "precision agriculture" farming practice has been "shown to reduce the use of fertilizer and fuel, which is better for the environment," Sara Lee stated. "This is our first step toward improving the environmental benefits of our products and we know that more can be done." EarthGrains hopes to "lead the bread industry in the right direction" by commercializing "innovative farming practices like precision farming, which has a number of benefits for both the consumer and the environment," the company added.
In describing the new EarthGrains campaign and its Web site during their kickoff early this month, brand manager Kate Cosgrove told Marketing Daily that the brand wants "to provide the consumer with complete transparency" about "what Eco-Grain is, and what it's not," adding that the grain and the breads are not -- for instance, organic.
In its press release, the Cornucopia Institute also noted that other Sara Lee bread ingredients (such as soy oil and soy lecithin) use genetic engineering and chemical extraction methods, and quoted Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, as pointing out that the term "natural" on products like bread "is not regulated by state or federal government," leaving companies to come up with their own definitions for the meaning of "all natural."
In 2007, Sara Lee petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to define "natural" in a way consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying that the food industry and consumers need clearer guidance on the term. (The petition included an argument for considering sodium lactate as "natural," per msnbc.com.) The Sugar Association also petitioned for a clearer definition.
Thus far, the FDA has not formally responded to those petitions, but in 2008, an FDA official told FoodNavigator-USA.com that the agency had no plans to address the definition in the near future due to budget constraints and other priorities. However, last year, in response to a query from the same publication, the FDA indicated that it would object to the use of the term "natural" on products containing high-fructose corn syrup.