Sara Lee greenwashing reaches new lows with EcoGrain bread
With the growing success of organics, and increasing consumer interest in buying foods that were grown on sustainable farms without toxic chemicals, Sara Lee Corporation has launched, with much fanfare, a marketing campaign for its Earthgrains bread, chock-full of environmental-friendly catchphrases.
Sara Lee claims that "Eco-Grain™," an ingredient actually used in small proportions in its Earthgrains brand breads, is more sustainable than organic grain. What has been described as a "crass and exploitive marketing ploy" has angered many in the organic community.
"Corporations like Sara Lee clearly want to profit from consumers' interest in ecological and healthy food production. But unlike organic companies, Sara Lee is doing practically nothing to ensure its ingredients are truly ecologically produced," said Charlotte Vallaeys, a Food and Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic industry watchdog. "It's 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."
Not exactly organic
The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, points out that the farmers who grow Eco-Grain differ very little from most conventional grain producers who use petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, and have little in common with certified organic farmers.
The one attribute that Sara Lee uses to differentiate Eco-Grain production is that the farmers, although they use chemical fertilizers, incorporate technology that has reduced fertilizer usage by 15%. In contrast, as mandated by federal law, organic farmers are required by law to reduce their synthetic fertilizer use by 100%.
Organic farmers use natural fertilizers, compost and crop rotations to enrich the long-term health of the soil, without damaging the environment or potentially contaminating the food produced.
However, Cornucopia's Vallaeys points out that, "Even if their new fancy wheat were truly superior, each Earthgrains 24 ounce loaf contains only 20% flour from Eco-Grain, with the remainder of the bread's wheat coming from regular, conventional wheat. The total reduction in chemical fertilizer use in a loaf of EarthGrains bread therefore amounts to a meager 3%."
"Even though they've done a countrywide media rollout, including underwriting spots on National Public Radio, Sara Lee is, in essence, playing a shell game," said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector at The Cornucopia Institute. "Even as they had the audacity to promote a bread with just 20% of their 'value added' wheat, the rest of their product line has 0% content of the Eco-Grain. If advertising executives could be charged with malpractice, this would be a major felony," Kastel said.
Demand for Sara Lee to halt the deceptive advertising
The Cornucopia Institute has written to the CEOs of both Sara Lee and NPR requesting that the "misleading and unethical" packaging and advertising campaign, and associated advertising and underwriting, be immediately suspended while the corporations investigate their propriety.
In addition to the organic prohibition against chemical fertilizers, federal regulations also prohibit organic farmers from using toxic pesticides that are commonly applied to conventional wheat fields, including those growing "Eco-Grain."
One such pesticide typically used in conventional wheat production is 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), which EPA researchers have correlated with numerous birth defects of the respiratory and circulatory systems, as well as defects like clubfoot, fused digits and extra digits. Other research has linked the use of toxic pesticides on wheat fields to increased cancer mortality rates.
And, in addition to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, conventional wheat farmers sometimes use synthetic fungicides and other chemicals to treat their fields.
"For Sara Lee to claim that their wheat is ecologically grown and sustainable, when they appear to make no effort to reduce or eliminate their use of toxic pesticides, that have terrible effects on the environment and public health, is highly disingenuous," says Nathan Jones, who grows organic wheat in King Hill, Idaho and chairs the Organic Advisory Board of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.
In addition to shunning toxic agrochemicals, organic farmers are required to improve the long-term health of their soil, and increase biodiversity on their farms.
"Unfortunately, this is another example of a major agribusiness trying to blur the line between products labeled 'organic' and 'natural'," stated Kastel, who acts as Cornucopia's Senior Farm Policy Analyst. "It seems that some corporations, like Sara Lee, appear more interested in corporate profit and greenwashing than true environmental stewardship, and are doing everything they can to take advantage of this confusion among consumers," Kastel added.
"The term 'natural' on products like bread is not regulated by state or federal government," says Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition at New York University. "Companies that use the term 'all natural' essentially come up with their own definition."
In addition, some of Sara Lee's other bread ingredients, such as soy oil and soy lecithin, are grown and processed using genetic engineering and chemical extraction with the toxic solvent hexane, both technologies that are banned in organic production.
In online marketing materials, Sara Lee even claims that farming methods used to produce its "100% Natural" bread "have some advantages over organic farming." They cite only one ecological advantage, claiming that organic farmers require more land than conventional growers.
"This claim does not hold up against recent scientific data," said Alison Grantham, Research Manager at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, an agricultural research, education and outreach group. "Long-term trials, such as our nearly 30-year-old Farming Systems Trial, show long-term average organic farming systems' crop yields match conventional farming system yields, and that the improvements in soil health achieved by organic management actually support higher yields during droughts."
"I just can't believe that Sara Lee would claim to be more sustainable than organic bakers like me," affirms Daniel Leader, a certified organic bread baker and owner of Bread Alone Bakery in the Hudson Valley, New York. "In deference to my customers, I've made an investment in real sustainability by going organic, and for Sara Lee to tarnish the good name of organics, and even claim to be superior to organic bread, is simply unacceptable." Bread Alone Bakery is certified by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, a certifier accredited by the USDA.
Sara Lee's longtime ad jingle campaign doesn't seem to be ringing true for organic farmers, bakers and consumers -- "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee." It will remain to be seen whether spending more money on marketing and advertising than on Eco-Grain itself will pay off for the agribusiness giant.
The Earthgrains/Eco-Grain investigation is the first in a series of Natural Versus Organic profiles that The Cornucopia Institute will be issuing in 2010.
The campaign is intended to empower consumers and wholesale buyers with marketplace knowledge so that they can make good, discerning purchasing decisions -- providing their families and customers with truly superior food that pays dividends for human health, the environment and society.
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