Progresso kinda responds to controversy over chemical in its cans

Posted on July 2, 2012 8:22 am by | Brands | Crisis Communication | Facebook | Social Media

Progresso SoupsProgresso, the General Mills-owned soup brand, has finally responded to a growing chorus of customer calls for the company to end its use of BPA in its cans. They have responded, that is, if 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 podcast. Paul notes that the trouble started with a November 22, 2011 NPR report noted that eating soups from cans with the chemical 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 bisphenol A 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, which 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 like Nestle and Mattel. 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:

Blocked Post

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:

Progresso Reply to My Post

In fact, I noted on FIR that Progresso hadn’t been removing any posts that I could detect, but since they also hadn’t commented on any of them, I couldn’t be sure whether that was because they didn’t remove posts or because they weren’t monitoring what customers were saying. It’s encouraging to know the brand allows critical comments to stand. In the meantime, 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:

Progresso Reply to Consumers

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 blogs, sustainability blogs, mom blogs 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. They haven’t removed comments, they have 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 they’re 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, Nestle 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 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?”

 

Comments

  • 1.With something like this, one can never know what's going behind the scenes and for a company that large to be able to commit to something like that (which clearly is a far more complicated issue than it seems in terms of their ingredients), it takes *time*. For one to expect thousands of responses to be tweaked individually on such a sensitive subject, is unreasonable -- particularly when a community manager is required to communicate the same solid message from a legal perspective. One slightly tweaked message and it could be held against them either legally or across the web. A "canned message" is unfortunately sometimes the ONLY way to respond to such huge controversies.

    I've been on the other end of this kind of debacle and it is FAR harder than anyone could ever imagine. While an open letter to all may be necessary, not every company can make a large commitment within 24 hours. With so many stakeholders and necessary conversations needing to be had around the strategy, a brand can only do the best they can in such a short time period.

    Too many consumers expect companies to have the turnaround time of those small grassroots companies and/or expect the same response time of the situations that are on a smaller scale. Let's give the companies some credit and... time.

    Kate D. | July 2012

  • 2.About your commercial with people talking through cans connected by a string. You evidently don't know anyone who has actually done that. A person does not talk to the side of the can; they talk into the open end of the can and the can has a string held tight and the string then leads to the other person who listens with the ear up to the can and then can answer back.

    Bobby Ervin | October 2012

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