“They can stuff their [food] credentials, ’cause it’s them that take the cash”

March 22, 2009

You know virtuous food (i.e., local/organic/sustainable or some other euphemism of the day) is doing well when Times articles about it move from the Fashion & Style section to Business. Saturday’s article chronicles the new momentum virtuous food – particularly organic food – has acquired thanks to a bit of White House boosterism. Andrew Martin writes:

Mr. Hirshberg and other sustainable-food activists are hoping that such actions are precursors to major changes in the way the federal government oversees the nation’s food supply and farms, changes that could significantly bolster demand for fresh, local and organic products. Already, they have offered plenty of ambitious ideas.

For instance, the celebrity chef Alice Waters recommends that the federal government triple its budget for school lunches to provide youngsters with healthier food. And the author Michael Pollan has called on President Obama to pursue a “reform of the entire food system” by focusing on a Pollan priority: diversified, regional food networks.

Still, some activists worry that their dreams of a less-processed American diet may soon collide with the realities of Washington and the financial gloom over much of the country. Even the Bush administration, reviled by many food activists, came to Washington intent on reforming farm subsidies, only to be slapped down by Congress.

The plot is familiar: intelligent foodies and farmers are trying to improve America’s diet with the help of a few Washington mavericks, only to be stymied by Congress and the evil agribusiness/food industry lobbyists which control it. Even the cast is familiar, at least on the pro-virtue side: Alice Waters. Michael Pollan. Mr. Hirshberg.

Wait–Mr. Hirshberg? That’s Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm. Mr. Hirshberg, according to Martin’s report, is fired up about changing the system:

Back in Anaheim, Mr. Hirshberg, the head of Stonyfield Farm, said he, too, is optimistic that change is at hand. But he reminded the small crowd that the organic industry remains a “rounding error,” roughly 3 percent, of the overall food and beverage business.

“We’re at the starting line,” he says. “This is our job, our government. We’ve got to take it back.”

Do it, Mr. Hirshberg! Take back the government in the name of … multinational corporations. As Andrea Whitfill wrote last week in AlterNet, Stonyfield Farm is mostly owned by the Danone conglomerate, and Hirshberg happens to sit on the board of Dannon U.S.A. So is that talk about “taking back” the government in the name of virtuous food change from within, or clever marketing to sell Danone’s higher-priced yogurt?

In fact, Mr. Hirshberg’s Stonyfield Farm is not alone in pushing virtuous product while being owned by a distinctly non-virtuous company. It seems that just about every organic or virtuous brand consumers are familiar with has been snapped up by large corporations. Take virtuous cereal brands, for example.

“Cereals, like milk, are one of the primary entrance points for use of organics,” said Lara Christenson of Spins, a market research group for the natural products industry, “which is pretty closely tied to children — health concerns, keeping pesticides, especially antibiotics, out of the diets of children. These large firms wanted to get a foothold in the natural and organic marketplace. Because of the mind-set of consumers, branding of these products has to be very different than traditional cereals.”

These corporate connections are often kept quiet. “There is frequently a backlash when a big cereal package-goods company buys a natural or organic company,” Christenson said. “I don’t want to say it’s manipulative, but consumers are led to believe these brands are pure, natural or organic brands. It’s very purposely done.”

A little more digging shows that General Mills owns Cascadian Farm; Barbara’s Bakery is owned by Weetabix, the leading British cereal company, which is owned by a private investment firm in England; Mother’s makes it clear that it is owned by Quaker Oats (which is owned by PepsiCo); Health Valley and Arrowhead Mills are owned by Hain Celestial Group, a natural food company traded on the NASDAQ, with H.J. Heinz owning 16 percent of that company.

Whitfill has more examples, and Allison Kilkenny has pictures. Virtuous cereal, virtuous drinks, virtuous snacks, virtuous dairy products – much of what’s on the shelf at your grocery store is made by Big Food (-owned) companies far, far removed from what most of us envision when we think about how virtuous food is (should be) produced.

So what’s the big deal? Food activists have been telling us that the best way to get the food market to change is to vote with our money, spending more of it on smaller quantities of “good” food. Now we find out that the main channel through which we consume virtuous food – brand-name packaged foods – diverts our monetary votes to the coffers of the same companies we are trying to “punish.” That is not, in itself, the end of the world – or even of food activism. It may still be the case that virtuous food, in its most common forms, is better for us than other offerings from the parent Big Food firms. It may still be the case that corporate warriors such as Mr. Hirshberg will effect real “change from within” in the conglomerates they serve. It may still be the case that we can support virtuous causes by giving our money to one division of Unilever over another. Yet whatever may happen, it is definitely time for food activists to drop the “holy crusade” rhetoric in which organic/local/sustainable is the banner of the good, and “corporate” is the mark of the evil, and never the twain shall meet.


One Response to ““They can stuff their [food] credentials, ’cause it’s them that take the cash””

  1. […] A Grand Mute Proof notes that “virtuous,” healthy, organic food is just as corporate as any other kind. The […]

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