DOWNERS GROVE, ILL. — Sara Lee Corp. on Feb. 22 defended its marketing efforts for its new Earthgrains Eco-Grain wheat bread, stating it at no point ever “stated, implied or marketed” its product as organic. The company did, however, remove wording on its web site that stated Eco-Grain farming methods “have some advantages over organic farming.”

Sara Lee’s marketing of the bread on its web site and in promotional literature came under fire earlier in the day from The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic industry watchdog. According to Cornucopia, Sara Lee’s marketing implied Eco-Grain is more sustainable than organic grain.

“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,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, a food and farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.

In response to the institute’s comments, Sara Lee defended its marketing campaign, even while making alterations in the wording about Eco-Grain on the Earthgrains web site.

“We are confident in our current Eco-Grain messaging within all marketing efforts,” Sara Lee said. “In our efforts to transparently educate consumers about the major differences between the two farming practices on our web site, we recently compared the benefits of the unique farming practices of growing Eco-Grain to organic farming. It was never our intention to offend members of The Cornucopia Institute with this comparison. Our web site no longer features comparable language differentiating Eco-Grain from organic growing methods; however, we stand by our messaging and are very proud of this important first step we’ve taken to benefit the environment.”

Eco-Grain wheat, which will make up 20% of the whole grains in EarthGrains brand wide-pan bread, was developed by Horizon Milling, a joint venture between Cargill and CHS, Inc. The wheat is grown through farming practices that reduce the use of fertilizer.

According to Sara Lee, Eco-Grain wheat is grown using a technology called variable rate application, also known as “precision agriculture,” which uses a combination of satellite imagery and soil samples to identify the best use of fertilizer on the farmer’s field. The farmer then may use the data to apply nutrients to the crop only where it’s needed — a process that Sara Lee said requires less fertilizer, uses less energy and reduces emissions, all while increasing the amount of wheat grown on the land.

“This is our first step towards improving the environmental benefits of our products and we know that more can be done,” Sara Lee said. “At the moment, there is 20% Eco-Grain in our bread. We are looking to increase that percentage as more farmers are identified to grow the crop. We feel that by commercializing innovative farming practices like precision farming, which has a number of benefits for both the consumer and environment, Earthgrains can help to lead the bread industry in the right direction.”

In addition to including Eco-Grain wheat in its 100% whole grain, 100% natural line of wide pan bread, Sara Lee said it will expand the wheat’s use to EarthGrains Thin Buns later this year.