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Critics Charge Sara Lee with Greenwashing To Lure Consumers

(Beyond Pesticides, February 23, 2010) Latest in the trend of consumer “greenwashing,” Sara Lee Corporation has launched a new marketing strategy for its EarthGrains® bread, replacing a small proportion of its ingredients with their line of “Eco-Grain™” wheat. According to their press release, the company describes EarthGrains as “sustainable” because it uses a combination of “satellite imagery to help determine fertilizer requirements in any given area of the field,” reducing chemical fertilizer use by merely 15%. In contrast, as mandated by federal law, organic farmers are required by law to reduce their synthetic fertilizer use by 100%, and also prohibit organic farmers from using toxic pesticides that are commonly applied to conventional wheat fields, including those growing “Eco-Grain.” Sara Lee, which launched the bread marketing campaign February 2, 2010 said Eco-Grain wheat was developed with help from agricultural conglomerate Cargill.

According to Sara Lee’s website, 20% of the flour in EarthGrains 100% Natural 24 oz. bread is made from Eco-Grain™ wheat, therefore, the total reduction in chemical fertilizer use in a loaf of EarthGrains bread is only 3%. Sara Lee even claims in online marketing materials 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 a press release. “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.”

It is important to point out that farmers who grow Eco-Grain differ very little from most chemical-intensive grain producers who use petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, and have little in common with certified organic farmers. A Reuters news service report put it this way: “Sara Lee Corp is hoping using “green” grain will help attract consumers to its EarthGrains bread” by creating a price break that brings a premium but costs less than organic bread. According to Reuters, “That should appeal to consumers interested in helping the environment, but not if it means paying significantly more for organic bread, said Kyle Marinkovich, marketing manager at Horizon Milling.”

But are EarthGrains consumers really reducing in a meaningful way the hazardous synthetic materials used in chemical-intensive agriculture? And are other sustainability claims that ignore standards of soil health and continued hazardous chemical use a dangerous distraction from the urgent global environmental and health need to transition to truly sustainable organic methods? For more information on sustainability claims, read the letter Beyond Pesticides drafted along with other members of the National Organic Coalition (NOC) on the ANSI “Sustainability” Standard.

In addition to supporting chemical-dependent fertilization practices that damage soil health contrary to sustainability claims, Eco-Grain products do not address the central issue of eliminating hazardous pesticide use, such as 2,4-D, or malathion, which are both common in conventional wheat production. 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.

Organic farmers in contrast, 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. 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.

“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.”

The USDA Organic Label is intended to show consumers that the product adheres to uniform standard which meet the requirements of the National Organic Program Final Rule. For more information on reading through “Green” consumer claims, read Beyond Pesticides’ “Making Sure Green Consumer Claims are Truthful” from Pesticides and You.

Beyond Pesticides is a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), and recently, Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides, was appointed to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Organic agriculture embodies an ecological approach to farming that does not rely on or permit toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Instead of using these harmful products and practices, organic agriculture utilizes techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and composting to produce healthy soil, prevent pest and disease problems, and grow healthy food and fiber.

Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship and a reduction in hazardous chemical exposures for workers on the farm. The pesticide reform movement, citing pesticide problems associated with chemical agriculture, from groundwater contamination and runoff to drift, views organic as the solution to a serious public health and environmental threat. For more information on organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Program.

Take Action: 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.


One Response to “Critics Charge Sara Lee with Greenwashing To Lure Consumers”

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