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    A spoonful of protest

    By MELIA BOWIE
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 1, 2001

    After battling big sugar for years in the courts and at the polls, environmentalists with Save Our Everglades are now taking the fight to supermarket shelves throughout the region.

    With their own brightly packaged brand of pure cane sugar -- grown outside the Everglades in Texas and Louisiana -- stocked in Tampa Bay area grocery stores, the group also has launched an aggressive advertising campaign aimed at informing consumers of their new product and an old cause.

    Full-page magazine ads in Time, National Geographic, Southern Living, Cooking Light and Audubon tell consumers to "Help restore the Everglades to the harsh uninhabitable Hell nature intended it to be."

    Radio commercials began airing from Atlanta to the Florida Keys in late October when the campaign got under way.

    "We felt that Florida has conscientious consumers, and given a choice, they would ... buy a superior product without the environmental impact," said Mike Scott, manager of Apura Everglades Co. in Tequesta, which markets the sugar under the Save our Everglades label.

    But those who produce sugar in Florida -- an industry that accounts for more than $1.5-billion of the state's economy -- said they are far from happy with the advertisements that blame them for wiping out "millions of native plants and animals with poisonous chemical runoff from pesticides and fertilizers."

    Growers said the environmental label is not a financial threat to organizations such as Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar Corp., which produces 800,000 tons of raw sugar annually, 10 percent of the nation's supply.

    "A counter advertising campaign is not worth it," said Judy Sanchez, director of corporate communications for U.S. Sugar. "Most people are going to buy the bag of sugar they've been buying for years. We're not losing any sleep over it."

    But industry giants like the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida in Belle Glade argue that Save Our Everglades Sugar is spreading misinformation, and that does upset them, said spokeswoman Barbara Miedema.

    Added Sanchez: "We don't mind if they want to market sugar, we don't mind if they want to sell an environmentally friendly sugar, we want truth in advertising."

    Mary Barley, chairwoman of Save Our Everglades and owner of the small Tequesta company, said she is more familiar than most with Everglades issues, and "I can tell you they're still polluting, they still back pump, they're still not paying their fair share."

    The environmental group's foray into sugar sales is in part designed to keep consumers aware of that and offer them an alternative, she said, noting "even if it just makes a marginal profit, the important thing is the Everglades issue is out there and people are hearing about it."

    Her company, Barley added, does not receive a federal subsidy as do the large industry growers.

    Currently sold throughout the Southeast in Albertsons, Publix and Winn-Dixie stores, the 3.5-pound, resealable bags of refined sugar range in price from $2.19 to $2.89, while other brands are priced around $2.20 for a 5-pound bag.

    Sales for the past 18 weeks have doubled, said Scott. And at 12 bags per case, "we're doing about 20,000 cases a month."

    All profits go to the Everglades Foundation, state the bags.

    Thus far, the Tequesta company has produced two different bags of sugar: the more easily available Pure American brand in its orange bag and another in a blue and green one filled with a blend of organic and natural sugars from Paraguay.

    Lee Brunson, a spokesman at Publix's headquarters in Lakeland, said the chain began stocking the brand, which debuted in spring 2001, sometime in June.

    "A number of customers were asking about it," he said, although "it's not selling as many as Dixie (Crystals)."

    Scott, with Apura Everglades Co., acknowledged their bags are pricier, but "the people who buy our sugar are not buying discount sugar, they're supporting a cause."

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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