The famous advertisement says, “Nobody does it like Sara Lee.” Considering the controversy surrounding the advertising of Sara Lee’s EarthGrains bread, I think the jingle fits. The mega food company launched Eco-Grain wheat in its EarthGrains bread in February with a major public relations campaign that “blanketed the Web, Facebook, Twitter, and National Public Radio,” as a Salon.com article put it. Sara Lee billed it as “environmentally friendly” bread that “will save the earth, one field at a time” because Eco-Grain wheat is grown with “precision agriculture.” Sara Lee says precision agriculture can reduce synthetic fertilizer use by 15 percent.
The trouble with Sara Lee’s claims that its EarthGrains bread grown with Eco-Grain is environmentally friendly is that it still uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, neither of which are environmentally friendly. Going organic “would cut Sara Lee’s synthetic fertilizer use and chemical use down to zero,” Salon.com says.
Another problem with Sara Lee’s claims about the bread is that Eco-Grains make up only one-fifth of a loaf’s grain content. The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, compared EarthGrains 24-ounce bread loaves that contain Eco-Grain with organic bread containing the USDA Certified Organic seal, noting:
- A loaf of EarthGrain bread only contains 20 percent of the Eco-Grain–the other 80 percent of the wheat is conventionally sourced. So, when considering the marketing claims that Eco-Grain leads to a 15 percent reduction in synthetic fertilizer and applying that number to the one-fifth of each loaf that is Eco-Grain, the actual reduction per loaf is three percent. USDA Certified Organic bread, by contrast, uses only non-synthetic, non-petroleum based fertilizers, which results in a 100 percent reduction in synthetic fertilizer use.
- Pesticide use—Conventional wheat growers use pesticides that harm the environment and are toxic while organic farmers are required by law to eliminate the use of toxic pesticides.
Sara Lee responded to the criticism by issuing a statement which said that EarthGrains never claimed that Eco-Grain products are organic. “We’ve been completely transparent about the environmental benefits,” the company said. Eco-Grain wheat “is grown using precision agriculture, an innovative farming practice shown to reduce the use of fertilizer and fuel, which is better for the environment. This is our first step toward improving the environmental benefits of our products and we know that more can be done.”
Sara Lee’s environmental track record is not good by any means. The EarthGrains Baking Companies, Inc., a subsidiary of Sara Lee, paid a $5.25 million civil penalty for leaking refrigerants at a rate 35 percent higher than allowed by law. A 2003 Department of Justice press release called the violations the “the largest ever corporate-wide violations of stratospheric ozone protection regulations.”
Climate Counts gave Sara Lee a score of only two in its 2007 Company Scorecard Report. The report said Sara Lee ranked in the bottom because it “made limited or no public efforts to engage in a widening discourse on climate change and corporate climate initiative.”