PR Watch Uses Whole Foods to Attack Biosolids

The supermarket chain Whole Foods was targeted by PR Watch over the past year in an organized campaign against biosolids recycling....

News and commentary by Ned Beecher, NEBRA

The supermarket chain Whole Foods was targeted by PR Watch over the past year in an organized campaign against biosolids recycling.  As a result, Whole Foods added biosolids recycling to its list of prohibited agricultural practices that the supermarket chain requires of all its suppliers of produce and flowers. Last fall, Whole Foods provided its produce and flower suppliers with guidance on this new policy - including new "core requirements".  As part of this new program, the company will roll out produce and flower "ratings" in their supermarkets in September 2014. The ratings are similar to current Whole Foods ratings regarding the production of meats and seafood.

It was not Whole Foods, but PR Watch, that publicly announced the new biosolids policy in a January 15th news release stating that "under pressure, Whole Foods agrees to stop selling produce grown in sewage sludge."  On Friday, a Whole Foods representative told NEBRA that, over the past year or two, they had received many comments from customers concerned about biosolids use, but did not hear from customers or farmers who support biosolids use.  Up until late last year, their response to such comments was the following appropriate, accurate statement:

"Thank you for writing to Whole Foods Market with your concerns about produce grown using biosolids as fertilizer. As you may know, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies across the country heavily regulate both the production and use of biosolids as fertilizer. According to the EPA, biosolids are used on less than one percent of the nation's agricultural land. Currently, growers are not required by law to disclose whether they are using biosolids, but Whole Foods Market is looking into ways of providing customers with more information about produce growing methods than is currently available. Consumers who want to avoid produce grown with biosolids can turn to organic produce, since biosolids are prohibited from organic food production by the National Organic Program. A good place to learn more about the current state of biosolids in the US is at the EPA website: http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/wastewater/treatment/biosolids/genqa.cfm If you have any further questions please use our on-line response form.  Best regards,..."

Now, a year later, even though their new core requirements are said to be "science based" and targeted toward advancing sustainability, Whole Foods' new prohibition of biosolids is a clear reminder that customer perception and demand trump science. 

The PR Watch news release led to several repostings and media reports.  A few thoughtful media, such as NPR and the agricultural magazine The Grower, looked into the story more, seeking perspectives other than that of PR Watch.  They included the perspectives of two wastewater treatment agencies' biosolids programs (Washington, DC and Seattle) and soil scientists. 

But it was too late for the Whole Foods biosolids policy.  We in the biosolids management field had not been adequately engaged.  PR Watch, a savvy media and public advocacy group, convinced a respected organization by playing on the ignorance of the public and making "sludge" sound scary.   

The PR Watch effort is a clear example of advocacy tactics that have been used against biosolids in the past and are likely to be used in the future: target a respected organization that has a reputation based on being green and pressure them to adopt the PR Watch perspective.  It works easily if the targeted organization has limited knowledge and experience about biosolids - which was the case at Whole Foods.  During my recent conversation with a policy person at Whole Foods, I was asked some fairly basic questions ("What's the difference between sewage sludge and Class A and Class B?"), as well as the common questions of the day regarding traces of chemicals in biosolids (see NEBRA's paper on "microconstituents").  It seemed they had talked little, if any, with anyone involved in biosolids management.  Throughout the call, I regretted that this productive discussion we were having had not happened 12 - 18 months earler, before they set their policy.

As several in the biosolids management field have noted in response to the Whole Foods action, the actual impact on biosolids programs may not be that great in the short term.  The fact is, biosolids are not used that much for growing produce and flowers  And the amount of biosolids used on soils is far less than manures, which have caused documented human health impacts and, apparently, are not targeted in Whole Foods' new core requirements.  But, as PR Watch intended, just setting a policy against biosolids sends a chilling message.  In the coming months, Whole Foods produce and flower suppliers and growers will be asked about biosolids, with the implication that their use is negative.  And, as biosolids managers hold public hearings and meetings about biosolids management, they wlll now hear that biosolids are not allowed by Whole Foods.

The bright side of the PR Watch campaign is that it has created additional interest and media coverage.  Discussion is a good thing; in our experience, every time we've been engaged in a thoughtful discussion that provides time and resources for people to learn about biosolids recycling, the majority have found it an acceptable practice.  That's because the preponderance of research and experience have demonstrated its benefits and negligible risks.  That is why it is happening in every state and is supported and considered safe by USDA, U. S. FDA, U. S EPA, and two reviews by the National Academy of Sciences. 

Recycling biosolids is an important part of sustainability, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, recycling nutrients and organic matter, reducing the need for chemical fertilizer, and building healthy soils. Managing biosolids is a responsibility that falls on local public officials throughout the country.  They have no choice - wastewater solids are a necessary outcome of keeping the nation's waters clean and protecting public health. Often, recycling to soils is the best environmental choice.

Throughout the recent PR Watch publicity, Whole Foods has remained fairly quiet.  (Even crisis communications experts have taken notice.)  I'd like to think this is an indication that they are not buying all of PR Watch's simplistic arguments and loudly repeating them, but that they see the grays in this topic.  I eagerly anticipate further disussions.  The Whole Foods policy may be set for now, but policies do get updated.

This logo of the PR Watch campaign is a lesson in PR graphics, as skilled and deceptive as any PR.  It shows material that looks like feces, which even biosolids opponents consider to be highly recyclable, once it's treated for pathogens.  (What they worry about are the traces of chemicals in biosolids.) So the logo is not focusing on what PR Watch says they are concerned about (chemicals), but on something that is recyclable but which generates a visceral negative reaction (feces).  And consider this: if the sewage sludge or feces shown is dangerous, as the image seems to be saying, why is it being held with bare hands? And, finally, the presentation of the hands in front of a child's face suggests someone was urging him to eat the sewage sludge.  This evokes natural, visceral disgust - highly effective in getting the reaction PR Watch desires - a quick click on their webpage to send an email to Whole Foods.  PR Watch, which was formed to uncover misleading PR, uses the same unsavory tactics.

The Details of an Effective PR Campaign

PR Watch is an advocacy organization "reporting on spin and disinformation since 1993." It is part of the Center for Media and Democracy, which was founded by John Stauber, a co-author of Toxic Sludge is Good For You, a 1995 exposé of the public relations industry; the book mentions biosolids.  In the past several years, Mr. Stauber has been visibly behind several effective media campaigns against biosolids recycling, including staging this hostile takeover of an opening session talk at a BioCycle conference and staging a flamboyant protest about San Francisco's biosolids compost.  Mr. Stauber has learned from his years of studying and attacking public relations, so that he is as good as anyone at it.  He and his organizations deftly sway the media, politics, and public opinion.  As with the campaign targeting Whole Foods, their past "sludge" campaigns have focused on respected organizations and people, trying to force them to make statements against biosolids recycling.  The tone can be biting, even mean, as in this PR Watch article where Mr. Stauber crassly tries to force Alice Waters to denounce biosolids (even though Ms. Waters would seem to be a likely ally).  

PR Watch's campaign against Whole Foods is similarly crafty. It started more than a year ago, and follows the same script:

First, make simple, black and white statements about the horrors of something - biosolids recycling in this case (which has been routine practice in many areas of the U. S. for decades; more than 55% of the wastewater solids produced in the U. S. are recycled to soils).  Create scary logos and graphics to shock readers (example above). Then find an organization whose reputation hinges on purity - like Whole Foods - so you can force them to say what you want them to say, to shore up your cause.  Generate a customer campaign, providing a pre-written email, so that people who are duped by the PR Watch arguments only have to click once to send it. (This is reminiscent of the humorous and telling Dihydrogen Monoxide ("DhMo") campaign years ago, in which a pretend advocacy campaign demanded an end to the use of that dangerous substance and got numerous people to write hand-written letters mailed to a fictitious advocacy group.)  This kind of letter-writing campaign provides opportunities to put out news releases and stir up media attention on the issue (biosolids, in this case).  Then, when the targeted entity, Whole Foods, refuses to denounce biosolids, replying instead with a rational, accurate statement (quoted above), the advocates get angry and meaner:

"Dear [Whole Foods employee],
It has become obvious that you are ignoring my requests for answers to some simple questions. I can only assume you either refuse to answer because you cannot afford to be truthful or your hands are tied by upper management....I have copied ___  in previous emails but never had a reply. I am glad that you have replied in the past and trust that you will find the wisdom, words and guts to do so again...Not being open and honest to your shoppers about Toxic Sewage Sludge and just hiding behind the fact that "the FDA and EPA have approved" is fraudulent.  Hope to hear from you soon.  Sincerely,  Mario Ciasulli, Hillsborough, NC"  (Mr. Ciasulli is the face of PR Watch in the Whole Foods campaign.)

The campaign is made to look like a grassroots initiative, and the average person, presented with only the "facts" provided by PR Watch, is understandably concerned and/or confused.  If they don't access other information and perspectives, it certainly makes sense to be appalled at the thought of "sludged food."

Then, when there is a glimmer that the respected organization is considering moving in the direction you want it to, you announce that they have a new policy, even before the company does.  You declare victory.  PR Watch's January 15th news release did just that.  And for a week afterward, the media reporting the story of Whole Foods' new policy were all relying on the PR Watch statement.  The Whole Foods website says nothing about it, and Whole Foods did not return calls for many days.  And now PR Watch is asking people to thank Whole Foods for changing their policy (again, providing a one-click emailing option so that people don't even have to think).

Whole Foods staff seem sincere now in their interest in learning more about biosolids management.  I hope so.  It is better to confront tricky topics like biosolids recycling head on and help educate consumers, the media, and the public about this important topic, understanding that some things are simply not black-and-white.  PR Watch has one perspective; there are many others.  All are welcome in the discussion.  As an organization committed to transparency, Whole Foods could help stimulate further learning about the importance of wastewater treatment and biosolids management, even as their policy goes into effect.

After all, wastewater solids are not an optional gimmick that no one needs; they are a product of our care for public health and the environment, our need for clean water. They have to be managed.  They can be burned, landfilled, or recycled in accordance with strict federal and state regulations.  We, as a society, are closer to sustainability if we can safely recycle these materials.  Many biosolids are safely recycled today, even as research and experience are being employed to make biosolids recycling even safer and more sustainable.

I hope the interest stimulated by the PR Watch campaign will continue, and that Whole Foods staff and others will learn more.  Contact a local wastewater treatment facility.  Go for visit.  Read more on this website and visit others.  Think for yourself.