by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-industry

Jul 27 2021

America’s food monopolies and power imbalances

The Guardian and Food and Water Watch have produced a lengthy, interactive, and fact-filled investigative report, essential reading for anyone interested in how power is distributed in the US food system.

The report is a about how consolidation has increased the power of every segment of the food industry, and how that power imbalance threatens workers, consumers, and American democracy.

The size, power and profits of these mega companies have expanded thanks to political lobbying and weak regulation which enabled a wave of unchecked mergers and acquisitions. This matters because the size and influence of these mega-companies enables them to largely dictate what America’s 2 million farmers grow and how much they are paid, as well as what consumers eat and how much our groceries cost.

Here are some of the facts (and the Guardian summarizes others in an article on “The Illusion of Choice“):

  • At least half of the 10 lowest-paid jobs are in the food industry. Farms and meat processing plants are among the most dangerous and exploitative workplaces in the country.
  • Overall, only 15 cents of every dollar we spend in the supermarket goes to farmers. The rest goes to processing and marketing our food.
  • Four firms or fewer controlled at least 50% of the market for 79% of the groceries. For almost a third of shopping items, the top firms controlled at least 75% of the market share.
  • During the 2020 election cycle, the food industry spent $175m on political contributions, including lobbying by PACs and individuals and other efforts.
  • Until the 1990s, most people shopped in local or regional grocery stores. Now, just four companies – Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Ahold Delhaize – control 65% of the retail market.
  • Farmers received $424.4bn in subsidies between 1995 and 2020, of which 49% were for just three crops: corn, wheat and soybeans, according to the Environmental Working Group. Corn subsidies are the largest by a long way – $116.6bn – accounting for 27% of the total.
  • At least half of the 10 lowest-paid jobs in the US are in the food industry, and they rely disproportionately on federal benefits. Walmart and McDonald’s are among the top employers of beneficiaries of food stamps and Medicaid, according to a 2020 study by a non-partisan government watchdog.
  • Here in the US, there were 1.6bn animals living on 25,000 factory farms in 2017 – a 14% rise in just five years. Together, these animals produced about 885bn pounds of manure annually – equivalent to the human sewage generated by residents of 30 New York Cities.

Jun 25 2021

Weekend reading: Big Food, Big Tech, and Global Democracy

The Center for Digital Democracy has issued a report, Big Tech and Big Food.

The coronavirus pandemic triggered a dramatic increase in online use. Children and teens whose schools have closed relied on YouTube for educational videos, attending virtual classes on Zoom and Google Classroom, and flocking to TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram for entertainment and social interaction. This constant immersion in digital culture has exposed them to a steady flow of marketing for fast foods, soft drinks, and other unhealthy products, much of it under the radar of parents and teachers. Food and beverage companies have made digital media ground zero for their youth promotion efforts, employing a growing spectrum of new strategies and high-tech tools to penetrate every aspect of young peoples’ lives.

The full report is divided into five parts (annoyingly, there is no table of contents and page numbers are almost invisible):

1.  The data-driven media and marketing complex (starts on page 8).

Today’s youth are at the epicenter of an exploding digital media and marketing landscape. Their deep connection to technology and their influence on purchasing are fueling the growth of new platforms, programs, and services, and generating a multiplicity of marketing opportunities. Google has created a global business offering videos and channels that target children and other young people who are attracted by its entertainment and educational content.

2.  This describes how Big Food targets kids using digital media (page 17)

3.   This part talks about threats to kids’ health, privacy, and autonomy (page 38)

4.  The growing momentum for regulation (is it ever needed) (page 42)

5.  This section lays out a framework for creating a healthier digital environment for kids (page 47)

The report is chilling.  It makes cartoons on breakfast cereals look so last century.  I could not believe the sophistication of these digital marketing efforts, all aimed at getting kids to demand junk foods.

Some congressional leaders are on this.  They deserve support.

You don’t think this is an urgent issue?  Read the report.

Here are a few news stories about this report.

May 5 2021

Food companies should join the B Corporation movement

I read in DairyReporter.com that Danone reports an increased score in it B-Corporation certification.

I am interested in the B-Corporation phenomenon.

B Corporations are required to include social values—along with the usual profit motives—as established goals.

Society’s most challenging problems cannot be solved by government and nonprofits alone. The B Corp community works toward reduced inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high quality jobs with dignity and purpose. By harnessing the power of business, B Corps use profits and growth as a means to a greater end: positive impact for their employees, communities, and the environment.

What is that one unifying goal?  “We envision a global economy that uses business as a force for good.”

Certified B Corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.

B Corporations promise:

  • That we must be the change we seek in the world.
  • That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered.
  • That, through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.
  • To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.

Companies are assessed and rated on social value criteria.  They must achieve 80 of 200 points to be certified.

Food companies are among those certified as B corps

I’m not sure how this plays out in practice, but this certainly appears to be a step in the right direction.

If we want to encourage this effort:

  • Support food companies that sign up to be B corps.
  • Urge other food companies to join.
  • Hold them all accountable.
Mar 19 2021

Weekend reading: Michael Moss’s Hooked

Michael Moss.  Hooked: Food, Free Will,and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions.  Random House, 2021.

This follows Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat which was about how food companies used these ingredients to hook us on junk food.  The new book focuses on the “addictive” qualities of junk foods—what we are now calling “ultra-processed.”  I put addictive in quotes because his definition is looser than others I’ve seen: habits that are hard to quit.

By this definition, his book provides convincing evidence for what food companies do to make their products irresistible—remember Frito Lay’s “You can’t eat just one?”

The book starts by going into the physiology of addiction:

When we taste sugar, the taste buds on our tongue send the signal.  By contrast, the signal for fat gets transmitted by the trigeminal nerve that extends from the roof of the mouth to the brain.  Food that has both sugar and fat will activate these two different paths, sending to separate alerts, and thus doubling the arousal of a brain that appears to place a high value on information for information’s sake [62].

No wonder we like ice cream so much.

In speaking about how the food environment sets us up for overeating, he says:

…we simply haven’t had anywhere near the time we would need, vis-à-vis evolution, to catch up with the dramatic changes in food and our eating habits of the past forty years.  As a result, we are fundamentally mismatched to the food of today.  Small [Dana Small, an expert Moss interviewed] puts it this way: “It’s not so much that food is addictive, but rather that we by nature are drawn to eating, and the companies have changed the food [p. 99].

Moss is a terrific writer and tells a compelling story.  Even if you don’t have a problem resisting fast food, sodas, or chocolate, this book has a lot to say about why so many people have put on pounds during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Mar 4 2021

Feed the Truth: Draining the Swamp

Several years ago, Daniel Lubetzky, the founder of KIND bars, donated funds to create an organization, Feed the Truth, to investigate food industry influence on our food system.  I was part of a team that suggested names for members of the group’s board.  Once Lubetzky set up the funding, he has had nothing further to do with the group.  The board appointed Lucy Martinez Sullivan as its executive director.

She explains this group in a YouTube video.

As its first public action, Feed the Truth, along with Maplight, a group focused on exposing the influence of money in politics, has just published Draining the ‘Big Food’ Swamp [the Executive summary is here; the full report is here].

This report is about how the food industry exerts power.  It “exposes how the $1.1 trillion food and agriculture industry flexes its political muscle through a web of trade association lobbying and campaign spending, while operating behind the scenes to undermine public health, perpetuate inequality, and consolidate power.”

Some of the report’s findings:

  • In the last 10 years, the largest 20 food industry groups spent over 300 million dollars on federal lobbying.
  • Of nearly 6,300 food trade associations, the 20 largest spent more than 300 million dollars on federal lobbying in  the last 10 years.
  • Half of food trade lobbying came from only three groups: the National Restaurant Association, the American Beverage Association and the Consumer Brands Association.
  • The National Restaurant Association is lobbying relentlessly to block efforts to raise the national minimum wage.
  • The meatpacking industry is lobbying to keep workers on the job and to increase line speeds, despite the spread of COVID-19.
  • More than 80% of the food industry lobbyists at the largest trade associations are “revolvers,” or individuals who now lobby the officials and agencies they once worked for.
  • The top 20 food trade associations spent more in campaign donations to members of Congress who voted to overturn the election results than those that didn’t.

Feed the Truth also launched a petition calling on PepsiCo, a major member of all three of the top trade groups, to get its money out of politics.

This report is an impressive first step for this group.  I can’t wait to see what else it will do.

Resources

 

Feb 8 2021

Annals of industry-funded research: Peanuts this time

I recently received a letter (with my emphasis) making the rounds from the research director at The Peanut Institute (yes, such places exist):

Dear Colleague….

The Peanut Institute Foundation is a non-profit 501 (C)(3) entity that funds research in the area of peanut nutrition. We are requesting proposals from researchers across the country to enhance our understanding of how consuming peanuts, peanut butter, and peanut products improves health in various populations (eg. immune health, personalized nutrition, gut microbiome, brain health, chronic diseases, diet quality, etc.).

Suggested funding amount: $25,000 – $250,000

Deadline for submission: March 26, 2021

To download an application, visit: https://peanut-institute.com/nutrition-research/peanut-nutrition-grant-2021/

This is a classic example of how industry-funded research gets aimed at marketing, not science.  If the Peanut Institute were interested in science, it would request open-ended proposals about whether peanuts—as opposed to any other nut or legume—have any particular effect on health.  Big difference.

The Peanut Institute wants evidence of benefits.  It will not fund proposals unlikely to demonstrate benefits.

This is about marketing, not science.

And while we are on the subject of peanuts

Take a look at this Civil Eats’ superb investigative report on Big Peanut (yes, this too exists): “The Peanut Industry Has a Monopoly Problem—but Farmers Are Pushing Back.  Two shelling companies buy 80 percent of the nation’s peanut crop each year, allowing them to drive prices down while costing U.S. taxpayers millions in subsidies.

the peanut shelling industry is dominated by two powerful companies that together buy 80 percent of all peanuts grown in the U.S. The two companies, Golden Peanut and Birdsong, operate massive shelling facilities throughout the peanut belt, and together control or outright own nearly 200 buying points, where farmers must go to sell their raw peanuts. The system isn’t just unfair—it’s wildly expensive. Subsidizing the peanut industry cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2 billion from 2014 through 2018. It’ s the most costly per-acre crop to taxpayers in America, in large part because monopoly power controls pricing in the industry….For many growers, Birdsong and Golden are the only options, so they take whatever price the big shellers offer. Before 2002, growers received a more than $600-per-ton price guarantee; now that’s been replaced with a marketing loan system that guarantees just half that.

Looks like this industry could use even more scrutiny.

Jan 20 2021

The Gates Foundation: Philanthropy or Power Grabbing?

Is it good for any society to have people as rich as Bill and Melinda Gates?  Fairness is one thing, but the hazards of that much power are quite another.

The latest concern comes from the realization that the Gates’s own more American farmland than anyone else—242,000 acres.

According to the Realtors’ Land Institute’s The Land Report,

In 1994, the Gateses hired the former Putnam Investments bond-fund manager to diversify the couple’s portfolio away from the Microsoft co-founder’s 45 percent stake in the technology giant while maintaining comparable or better returns. According to a 2014 profile of Larson in the Wall Street Journal, these investments include a substantial stake in AutoNation, hospitality interests such as the Charles Hotel in Cambridge and the Four Seasons in San Francisco, and “at least 100,000 acres of farmland in California, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, and other states … .” According to the Land Report 100 Research Team, that figure is currently more than twice that amount, which means Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, has an alter ego: Farmer Bill, the guy who owns more farmland than anyone else in America.

Forbes’ account of this highlights that the largest holdings are in Louisiana (69,071 acres), Arkansas (47,927 acres) and Nebraska (20,588 acres).

According to AgFunder News’ discussion of these observations,

Agrifood is one area where the couple have sought to put their substantial wealth to work. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated almost $20 million to the International Rice Research Institute between 2007 and 2010, in part to support its development of fortified rice varieties. It has also invested at least $100 million into the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which aims to enhance smallholder productivity using science and technology.

The Gates’ have also invested in agrifoodtech startups, either through their private foundation or via other investment vehicles, including crop protection companies AgBiome and Enko Chem, dairy data platform Stellapps, food waste reduction player Apeel Sciences, biotech startup Gingko Bioworks, and ‘lab-grown’ meat maker Memphis Meats.

Other concerns have been raised about Gates’ holdings and philanthropy—“philanthrocapitalism.”

These raise important questions that deserve serious considerations.

Jan 12 2021

Coca-Cola cuts 2200 jobs: profits vs. social values

Coca-Cola, according to an account in the Wall Street Journal, announced that it is cutting 2,200 jobs globally, including 1,200 in the U.S., as a result of the pandemic-induced closure of the places where its products are sold: restaurants, bars, movie theaters and sports stadiums.

The company expects to save $350 to $550 million annually as a result.

Let’s put these savings in context.  Coca-Cola brought in $37.27 billion in revenues in 2019.

For the company, the eliminated jobs mean “less decision making, less bureaucracy and ultimately less people.”

Corporations, as I have reported previously, have pledged to consider social values—like fairness to employees—in their day to day operations as much as they consider returns to stockholders.

If they are going to make such promises, they need to be held to them.

Hence: the global campaign for Corporate Accountability.