Who’s Really Behind Your Favorite Organic Food Products?

Who’s Really Behind Your Favorite Organic Food Products?

These days, organic food is available almost everywhere. And that’s a good thing—the more farmland converted to organic growing practices, the healthier that makes our food, water, soil, and air, not to mention our bodies, or the farmers and ranchers who produce our food. Peel back those organic labels though and you’re likely to be surprised by who’s making the decisions. Rather than the small-scale family farm operations you might imagine, there are a growing number of conventional food giants who keep buying up organic food brands as the infographic below details.

Natural and organic foods were once the overpriced fringe items only sold in those small, dinky little health food stores. But not anymore. Organic Valley, leading producer of organic dairy products, just became the first billion-dollar organic food brand; and organics are growing faster in all categories than conventional food items, making them exceptionally appealing to the major multinational food corporations. Buying up profitable organic food brands is a strategic move that boosts bottom-line growth for companies like Campbell, General Mills, Perdue, and Coca-Cola whose core conventional items might not be performing as well as in decades past.

The first wave of acquisitions of organic processors was concentrated between December, 1997 and October, 2002.  This period coincides with the initial release of the draft USDA organic standards and its full implementation in October, 2002,” reports the Cornucopia Institute, the organic advocacy group that published the infographic below. “A second wave of acquisitions in the organic sector has been occurring since 2012. Surprisingly few major corporate agribusinesses note ownership ties on their acquisitions’ product labels.”

So what’s the big deal? After all, if major food conglomerates can shift their product offering to organic, then it’s a win-win, right? Cornucopia recently drew attention to Horizon, one of the leading producers of organic dairy products. Cornucopia acquired photos of giant feedlots for Horizon’s “organic” cows. The only thing that distinguished the certified organic farms from conventional factory farms was that the animals were fed organic diets. A small distinction, and not enough to qualify as organic, says the organization.

“After years of inaction by the USDA, Cornucopia contracted for aerial photography in nine states, from West Texas to New York and Maryland,” Cornucopia said in a press release in December 2014. “What they found confirmed earlier site visits: a systemic pattern of corporate agribusiness interests operating industrial-scale confinement livestock facilities providing no legitimate grazing, or even access to the outdoors, as required by federal organic regulations.”

And there are other concerns about organic brands being bought up by mainstream companies such as the anti-GMO labeling position most of these conglomerates take. So, while the founders of Honest Tea, now a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, may be pro-GMO labeling, Coca-Cola shelled out millions of dollars to support anti-labeling campaigns in states including California and Oregon. There are other concerns too, like political contributions made by parent companies, or use of controversial ingredients like palm oil. Some customers simply don’t want to give their money–for organic items or not–to corporations that have been linked to deforestation, rising obesity rates, and proliferation of genetically engineered crops.

So, does it matter to you where your food comes from?

The infographic, created by Dr. Phil Howard, Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State, notes some large recent acquisitions including Hormel’s purchase of Applegate Farms for $775 million, General Mills’ purchase of Annie’s Homegrown for $820 million, and WhiteWave’s purchase of So Delicious/Turtle Mountain for $195 million. Maybe that changes your shopping list a little bit. But then again, maybe not. The infographic also features independent brands of notable size including Clif Bar, Amy’s Kitchen, and Nature’s Path.

 

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Supermarket shopper image via Shutterstock

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. Twitter @jillettinger | www.jillettinger.com.