Boulder Daily Camera
By Alicia Wallace, Camera Business Writer

Move comes in wake of WhiteWave shifting Silk away from certified organic soybeans

Fourteen years ago, a burgeoning Boulder company — White Wave Inc. — was responsible for launching Silk soymilk, a brand that is now the category leader.

So when Whole Foods Market wanted to boost its organic soymilk options a year after Dean Foods’ WhiteWave Foods shifted most of its Silk products away from certified organic soybeans, the Austin, Texas, grocer turned to a burgeoning Boulder County firm — one stocked with former White Wave employees.

Whole Foods this week announced an agreement with Longmont-based Earth Balance under which the natural foods division of New Jersey-based spreads company Smart Balance Inc. would launch its line of organic soymilks at Whole Foods stores nationwide.

The soymilk agreement — and the potential to launch future lines with Whole Foods — could result in significant growth for Earth Balance, General Manager T.J. McIntyre said. The soymilk launch could help the $30 million company known now for its vegan-friendly spreads and nut butters on its way to becoming a $50 million company in just 18 months, he added.

“What we’re doing with Earth Balance is maintaining an intimate focus on the natural foods industry with the Earth Balance brand,” McIntyre said. “We are trying to mold Earth Balance into a brand that can answer the question: ‘What can big (consumer packaged goods businesses) do for the natural foods trade?’ ”

To both Earth Balance and Whole Foods officials, that answer includes taking actions to respond to consumer needs, McIntyre said. So along with having the soymilks receive organic certification, Earth Balance also is touting that its soymilks received certification from the Non-GMO Project for the milks not coming from genetically modified beans and that 100 percent of its soybeans were farmed in the United States, he said.

“We’re making a commitment to the American farmer,” McIntyre said. “In this economy, I think, there’s a patriotic message in there that I believe is going to resonate with the natural foods consumer.”

In the coming month, the Earth Balance line will launch across Whole Foods’ 286 stores. The products should be hitting the shelves as soon as this week in the company’s Rocky Mountain region, which includes Colorado.

Seeing that sales of organic products remained resilient during the height of the recession, Whole Foods wanted to cater further to its core customers’ lifestyles, said Errol Schweizer, the grocer’s senior global grocery coordinator.

In addition to bringing on the Earth Balance soymilk, Whole Foods is expanding its private-label organic soymilk, he said.

“(We) really want to emphasize we’re putting our organic foot forward,” Schweizer said. “Ninety-five percent of the products in the non-dairy refrigerator space are going to be organic.”

Schweizer declined to comment on how the Earth Balance addition and private-label expansion would affect other products on the shelves.

The decision to look at soymilk also came on the heels of Whole Foods officials receiving comments from consumers that they were concerned and confused after WhiteWave last year removed the word “organic” from its Silk labels and replaced it with “all natural,” he said.

WhiteWave Foods’ actions stirred complaints from the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy group that has been critical of Dean Foods in the past.

Despite the entry of a new competitor in the soymilk business, WhiteWave Foods officials remain optimistic and confident their Silk brand will continue to have success.

“(Earth Balance) seems to be following in the footsteps in the same ways we’ve already done,” said Molly Keveney, a WhiteWave spokeswoman.

Keveney noted that Silk’s soybeans are sourced entirely from the United States; the products are expected to carry the Non-GMO Project-verified seal in early 2011; the company launched a “responsible soybean sourcing program” and also is partnering with Conversation International in an initiative in which consumers can trace their Silk’s origins via a Web site.

“I think we’re proud to be the No. 1 brand of soymilk in the U.S., and I think we’ve done a lot. … We’ll continue to bring innovation,” she said.

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