Big Food Empire

by | Nov 13, 2015 | Cover Story, News

In 1955, there were 81 independent organic companies in the United States. Now only 15 of these companies remain free of major corporate control. Essentially everything you eat is processed and owned by large corporations.

Annie’s Homegrown is an organic and non GMO food brand that was recently bought by General Mills, a large-scale company, for $820 million dollars cash. In the food industry, the two company’s values are polar opposites.

Annie’s joined the food industry in 1989 to pursue their mission to make a healthy and delicious macaroni and cheese. They hold a unique niche in the food industry by creating healthy food while being socially responsible.  Their ingredients come with the promise of no artificial flavors or colors, no synthetic preservatives, no GMOs, no growth hormones, and no persistent pesticides. While growing their food, Annie’s strives to be sustainable by keeping the air clean and replenishing the soil. These values are explicit in their mission statement. In the end, Annie’s is a business and all businesses need to make a profit–but their main mission is to do so by providing wholesome food options.

General Mills is a multi-million dollar corporation that owns most of America’s favorite foods. They started with humble beginnings in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1886, but since then have amassed many smaller food brands. They have done so while simultaneously cutting down the rainforest and endangering animals to obtain palm oil for their products. They own Pillsbury, Betty Crocker, Cascadian Farms, Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Nature Valley, Haagen- Dazs, Progresso; the grocery list of companies could go on and on.

Loyal customers of Annie’s are worried that their favorite products won’t be the same after the corporate change. General Mills took over Cascadian Farms, a company devoted to having “no added sugar” in their products. However, once the corporate shift occurred, the sugar content in the cereal Purely O’s had tripled. According to Forbes, despite this change in the product, General Mills profited $330 million from Cascadian Farms.

In a segment on TheLipTV, Lisette Padilla and Mark Sovel discuss the issue of the buyout:

“Organic food industry is growing and it is evolving you know it’s been growing at a 12 percent compound rate over the last ten years” Padilla said. “It is an important industry and one at General Mills is trying to capture, this isn’t the first organic company that it has acquired and has a few others as well.”

Padilla then asks Sovel if General Mills will be able to expand in a manner that mimics Annie’s beliefs:

“They are seeing it as a business decision not if they want to provide healthy food, so will they cut corners? That’s the question,” Sovel said.

Padilla states that the consolidation of the companies may be a good business decision, but questions how it will affect consumers. How will it affect how consumers eat and the sustainability of the practices?

General Mills has also created a product called Fruit by the Foot, but there seems to be a missing ingredient from the title–fruit. There is no actual fruit in this product. The FDA allows products to be labeled as made with fruit even when there is no fruit within them. There may be pear or orange concentrate, but concentrate is essentially just the juice boiled down till there is no nutritional value left.

These types of incidents have led to unsteady views by consumers. To reassure the worried Annie’s customers, John Foraker, Annie’s CEO, made a statement for Forbes magazine.

“Powerful consumer shifts toward products with simple, organic and natural ingredients from companies that share consumers’ core values show no signs of letting up,” said Foraker. “Partnering with a company of General Mills’ scale and resources will strengthen our position at the forefront of this trend, enabling us to more rapidly and efficiently expand into new channels and product lines in a rapidly evolving industry environment.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, many customers are concerned about Annie’s future and have stopped buying their products. They have voiced their opinion through social media. Those who buy organic products prefer the brands they buy to be independent of corporate control.

Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel (a marketing research company) understood why General Mills would buy into Annie’s, but foresaw many faults in the plan.

In an interview for bakeryandsnacks.com, she predicted that with the corporate shift their will be distrust of Annie’s in loyal customers. She says that this a major challenge for companies that buy into small companies and a very hard one to overcome.

After of a year being owned by General Mills, Annie’s CEO Foraker made a statement via Facebook.

My personal goal for this next year (and the years to come), is for Annie’s to be so wildly successful inside General Mills that we not only continue to grow goodness in the same authentic Annie’s way, but we help inspire even more positive change in transparency, sustainability, and environmental impact with Mills,” Foraker said.

In response to this statement, many people have commented with concerns on how Annie’s is committed to using cage free eggs, yet their parent company does not practice humane treatment of animals.

Shannon Heine, assistant communications manager in Global Communications at General Mills, interviewed Steve Peterson, the director of sustainable sourcing at General Mills on the issue of cage free eggs.

“We really see this as a long-term goal that will require unparalleled collaboration. We’ll work closely with our suppliers as they rebuild the supply chain to determine a path forward on this commitment,” Peterson said.

General Mills provides cage free eggs for Haagen-Daz in Europe, but not in the United States. And there is no tangible timeline for the use of cage free eggs. This opens questions for what quality and morality of issues is allowed between different countries. It will take a lot more time and effort for Annie’s values to be reflected upon General Mills.  

Annie’s Homegrown is a non GMO (genetically modified organism) product. GMOs are genetically modified organisms, whose genomes have been mutated by inorganic techniques by genetic engineering to remove or alter the DNA of the organism. General Mills has poured their money into trying to end the labeling of GMOs. General Mills donated $1,135,300 to a campaign to prevent GMO labeling initiative prop 37 in California.

According to The Non-GMO project, an organization dedicated to recognizing GMOs within America’s food, GMOs are “living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE.”

GMOs are generated combinations of plant, animal, viral, and bacterial genes that do not occur naturally or in traditional cross breeding approaches. They are mostly created with herbicide to be an innate pesticide within the plant. However, this just creates environmental issues, such as extinction of certain bugs. There are few recognized benefits to GMOs. In fact, 60 countries around the world including Australia, Japan, and the European Union have come to ban GMOs. However, the FDA has yet to make a statement on GMOs and they are not consistently labeled within America.

The Non-GMO Project says, “In the U.S., the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale.”

Many Americans want to know what is in their food, but the information isn’t there. The Non-GMO Project expounded on this issue by stating “the powerful biotech lobby has succeeded in keeping this information from the public.”  

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General Mills is not the only company to profit off of the organic food business. Coke and Pepsi have donated millions of dollars along with General Mills to end Prop 37 on labeling GMOS in California. Naked, a vegan organic smoothie drink, is owned by Pepsi. When buying organic brands, you are directly supporting brands that are unhealthy and harsh on the environment. In 2001, Coca-Cola bought Odwalla for $181 million. These two pop kings create sugary sodas and mass distribute them across a country that has the largest numbers of obesity and diabetes in the world. Since Coke and Pepsi have obtained ownership of these juice brands, the products have received lawsuits stating that they are not as natural as advertised. Naked was sued for $9 million because of the false labeling of “all natural,” because the drinks contain GMOs and synthetic ingredients. Despite this scandal, Pepsi was able to remain successful because they are multi-million dollar company.

Reaganomics allowed for the merging of large corporations, thus leading to a major consolidation of the food industry. Meat, grain, and produce companies began to unite as one. These new conglomerate companies gave the food industry an unforeseen economic power, which resulted in power being taken away from small food companies and local farmers.

Oxfam International conducted a study called “Behind the Brands” focusing on the ten food and drink companies that control the industry. The list includes: Associated British Foods, The Coca-Cola Company, Groupe Danone S.A (Dannon), General Mills, Kellogg Company, Mars Incorporated, Mondelez International Inc., Nestle S.A, PepsiCo Inc, and Unilever Group. These ten companies each have at least $10 billion in assets. These tremendous ten have the power to affect nutrition, environmental conditions, and working conditions worldwide. This type of power is innate within American Capitalism.

At the University of Redlands, the Plaza Market carries brands such as Annie’s, Nature Valley, and Naked. I would be a liar if I said I never buy any of their products. From an ethical standpoint, you cannot choose a lesser of two evils when it comes to these products because they are owned by giant conglomerates. When you buy a Naked in turn you are supporting Pepsi. But it is important to choose the healthy option when selecting the food for your diet. Everyone can make strides to fix the food system with their own choice. You can choose to eat in the farm to table SURF line, you can choose to vote with your dollar when buying foods, you can buy from local organic farmers, and you can vote for legislation that brings positive change to the food industry. The food industry has been eaten up by large corporations, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The change is on our plates.

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