Foodopoly: How Big Food Dominates Supermarket Choices
18 Jan, 2013
by Andy Bellatti, via Grist.org
It’s no surprise that gigantic, multinational companies own most of the dominant organic brands out there. Big Food’s tentacles stretch far: Just four companies control 80 percent of the beef market, and many competing brands in the snack aisle huddle under the umbrella of the same parent company.
The corporate control and consolidation of the food industry is the central theme of Wenonah Hauter’s new book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America. Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, explores “the battle over the food and farming in America” as independent farmers and companies struggle to stay afloat in the face of corporate mergers and bad food policy.
But before you put down your (Kellogg-produced) Gardenburger to protest your local cattle ranch, Hauter warns a bigger response is required. “[I]t’s time that we stop demonizing farmers as the chief culprits behind our dysfunctional food system and start addressing the structural issues,” she says.
I recently chatted with Hauter over email about Foodopoly. She talks about how the system got the way it did, and what you can do to fix it:
Q. Give us a snapshot of the history of food-industry consolidation.
A. Just 20 companies produce most of the food eaten by Americans (yes, even organic brands). These companies are so large, they have the economic and political power to dictate food policy, from laws on advertising junk food to children and manipulating nutrition standards to weakening federal pesticide regulations and blocking the labeling of genetically engineered foods.
They have been able to become so large because of the evisceration of antitrust law during the Reagan administration. And since that time, no U.S. president has been willing to tackle the issue of concentration. This is ironic since all of the rhetoric about our economic system revolves around competition in the marketplace, but all public policy drives a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions. This is especially true in the food industry.
Q. What are the prospects for reversing course in the near future?
A. Consolidation is likely to continue and even accelerate over the next few years. Although the pace of mergers stalled during the economic recession, there are signs that merger and acquisition activity has started to pick back up. Just since Thanksgiving, two [food] mega-mergers have been announced. ConAgra is purchasing Ralcorp, the nation’s leading manufacturer of store-brand food, and JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, is purchasing the second-largest Canadian meatpacker, XL Foods. XL Foods made headlines earlier this year after significant food safety lapses allowed 2.5 million pounds of potentially E. coli-tainted ground beef to enter the marketplace.