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Environmental group finally gets billboard targeting local grocer, for now

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A nonprofit environmental group has finally found a company willing to post its billboard critical of Giant Eagle. But how long it stays up is anyone's guess.

Earlier this year, Washington, D.C.-based Oceana began targeting the local grocery giant because of how the store notifies customers about high mercury levels in fish. The Food and Drug Administration requires grocery stores to warn people about the pollutant, which threatens children and pregnant women. (The pollutant, which can become concentrated in the fatty tissue of fish, may cause birth defects and developmental problems.)

Oceana wants grocers to post highly visible signs near seafood counters and frozen-food cases, warning that mercury levels found in some fish can result in birth defects. Several large food retailers -- including Safeway and Whole Foods -- have agreed to post in-store signs. Giant Eagle, by contrast, offers a six-page brochure entitled "What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish."

In an effort to increase public pressure on Giant Eagle, Oceana attempted to post critical billboards of the store with the store's name across the top and the message: "Mercury hurts kids" underneath [see City Paper, Aug. 16, "Fishing for a Controversy"]. But several outdoor advertising companies, including Lamar and Clear Channel, refused to run the ads.

In early October, however, a company called Chairman of the Boards placed one billboard on state Route 22/30 near Noblestown, Pa.

"The ad is scheduled to run for at least four months," says Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana. "But we'll have to see how it goes."

Indeed, on Monday afternoon, Savitz says she spoke to Oceana's advertising broker who says the billboard company was pulling the advertisement after Giant Eagle threatened them with legal action.

However, Roberts said that the advertising company had already removed the board after conducting independent research and finding that other local grocery stores also did not post signs about mercury and that targeting Giant Eagle was unfair. "The billboard company took it down on their own volition," Roberts says. When asked if the grocer called the advertising agent at all about the sign, Roberts replied, "Not that I know of."

Savitz says that it's "really weird" that Oceana's advertisements "are being questioned in a way that no corporation's ads have ever been questioned by billboard companies."

A spokesman for the Chairman of the Boards did not return calls seeking comment by press time.

"[T]hese billboards are just the first step as we get ready to gear up for our 2008 campaign," Savitz says. "In the past we've focused on 15 or so retailers, but next year we are going to cut that back to five of the largest, and Giant Eagle is definitely one of our top targets.

"A mom shopping for dinner doesn't have time to stand around and read a pamphlet."

She adds, however, that Giant Eagle is "not that far off" in terms of meeting the group's demands. "They already have a brochure: Making the move to a sign is not that far of a leap."

Savitz says a campaign against Giant Eagle will feature more advertisements and outreach to shoppers, which could include leafleting at stores.

Giant Eagle spokesman Dick Roberts says that regardless of the pressure, the grocer plans to stick with the pamphlets.

"We provide a substantial amount of information to our customers regarding mercury in fish," Roberts says. "It's a well-received program. It serves its purpose well, and the company intends on sticking with that program."

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