Editor's note: PR Daily reached out to General Mills for comment. We will update the story with any statement or response the company provides.
Progresso, the General Mills-owned soup brand, has finally responded to a growing chorus of customer calls for the company to end its use of bisphenol A (BPA) in its cans. The company responded, that is, if you consider copying and pasting a canned (no pun intended) statement is a response.
I learned about the issue when Paul Gillin
called my attention to it as a possible story for this week’s For Immediate Release
(FIR), the podcast I co-host. Paul notes that the trouble started with a Nov. 22, 2011 NPR report
that said eating soups from cans with BPA can “dramatically increase exposure to the chemical.” NPR cited a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In fact, awareness of the presence of BPA in soup cans started growing a year earlier, with an October 2010 Mother Jones article
. In 2009, according to the article, “the nonprofit Consumers Union found [BPA] in 18 of 19 canned foods it tested: Progresso Vegetable Soup topped the list with 22 micrograms of BPA per serving—116 times Consumers Union’s recommended daily limit.”
BPA has grown controversial, according to Wikipedia
, “because it exerts weak, but detectable, hormone-like properties, raising concerns about its presence in consumer products and foods contained in such products.” Canada has declared BPA a toxic substance, and Paul adds that it has been linked “to everything from infertility to cancer and cardiovascular disease.”
Campbell’s, probably the best-known soup company, announced earlier this year
that it was removing BPA from its cans; it’s just one of several companies that have taken this step. From Progresso, however—despite ranking at the top for BPA levels—there has been nothing but silence.
Enter the crowd that has been signing a petition on ChangeThis.org
calling BPA a poison and telling Progresso to remove the substance. Nearly 117,000 people have signed the petition.
They’ve also taken to Progresso’s Facebook page
, which boasts some 212,000 fans. The posts from fans, which began on June 27, are different than those we’ve seen in Facebook campaigns against companies such as Nestlé
. These aren’t activists flooding the page. They are genuine fans, making statements like:
“I will not be buying Progresso soups until the BPA is taken out, and importantly, replaced with a safe alternative or something inert. Too bad, I love your soups.”
I checked the page daily for responses; none appeared. I left my own update, informing Progresso I’d be reporting on the story on today’s FIR. When I tried to publish the item, I got this message instead:
I altered the URL to unlinked text and the post appeared. I checked for replies but found none by the time my co-host and I recorded the show on Sunday morning.
Later Sunday, however, a reply appeared:
In fact, I noted on FIR that Progresso hadn’t been removing any posts that I could detect, but since it also hadn’t commented on any of them, I couldn’t be sure whether that was because the company didn’t remove posts or because it wasn’t monitoring what customers were saying. It’s encouraging to know the brand allows critical comments to stand. However, my link to the petition was still blocked. The petition is neither spammy nor unsafe, just critical.
I also saw that every BPA-related post now had a comment from Progresso. The same comment, cut-and-pasted into the comment fields:
There is still no word on either the Progresso website or parent General Mills’ site. In the meantime, bloggers are gradually picking up the cause, with posts appearing in health, sustainability, mom, and food blogs. (Here’s just one example
.) Mainstream media hasn’t picked the story up yet. It’s just a matter of time.
In the overall scheme of things, Progresso’s response is far from the worst we’ve seen. It hasn’t removed comments; it has issued a response, even if it’s less than warm and human to give the same word-for-word response to everybody. I believe whoever posted the replies when he or she says the company is listening.
But time is running short. The overarching fact to remember in any crisis scenario (one in which the brand’s reputation and earnings are at risk) is that the public is risk-averse. With people talking about poison, cancer, and other red-flag consequences, it’s likely not enough that Progresso seems to be leisurely weighing its options. In households where canned soup is a staple, buyers and preparers of food have to be wondering why Progresso can’t pull the trigger when Campbell’s did it so easily. It’s a classic scenario for consumers to shift their purchases to the soup perceived as safest.
In the wake of growing demand for change, Nestlé stopped using rain forest-sourced palm oil in its Kit Kat bars and Mattel found a new source for its Barbie packaging—and these are hardly the only two case studies of companies that capitulated to consumer pressure.
Without an activist group leading the charge against Progresso, the storm is brewing more slowly and organically, but it is brewing, and the company’s statement is most likely not enough to slow it down.
As Paul Gillin concluded in his post: “Progresso’s only viable strategy may be to announce that it’s eliminating BPA from its packaging, but that’s a bigger issue than crisis communications. What should Progresso do?”
Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.