Where is your food is from? What happened to it before it reached your plate? More people are asking these questions, in large part because it is increasingly difficult to answer them. We now know so little about our food, particularly its ecological and social impacts, that it’s easy to feel like we’ve lost control over it.
The recent recall of eggs contaminated with Salmonella has underscored just how opaque the origins of our food have become. The accompanying diagram illustrates how eggs from just two farms in Iowa were sold in 22 states under more than 40 different brands. Other food recalls, such as peanuts contaminated with Salmonella in 2008-2009, and spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 in 2006, revealed similar patterns: dozens of different brands packaged in one processing plant, which were then shipped across the country, or even internationally.
Unfortunately, in the absence of a recall, we have no way of knowing who is really producing foods like these. Companies that own the brand names are becoming less involved in farming, processing, and packing. Like the shoe company Nike, these “virtual” food companies may contract out the production, focusing instead on the marketing aspects of their business. They frequently keep the name and location of the producers a trade secret to prevent competitors from learning where they source their products. This confidentiality could be considered excessive, when recalls illustrate that so few facilities are now responsible for producing so much of our food. Two companies control approximately 80 percent of the bagged salad market in the United States, for example, despite the appearance of many more “competing” brands on retailer shelves.
The challenge of consolidation
The number of firms responsible for producing most of the food consumed in the United States gets smaller every year. This consolidation is a result of the largest companies buying out their closest competitors, with many of the remaining companies going out of business. The result is that markets become less competitive, giving dominant companies the power to artificially raise prices for consumers—or lower the prices they pay farmers and other suppliers.
In addition to this economic impact, consolidation gives a rapidly shrinking minority the power to determine other aspects of food production, such as how food is produced; how much is produced; where it is grown, processed, transported, and sold; and ultimately, who gets to eat. And, as the recent egg recall taught us, an overly consolidated food system makes the whole country vulnerable to the dangerous practices of just a few farms.
There are alternatives to this highly consolidated food system, though some of the most successful are now threatened by consolidation, as well. Organic food, for example, is intended to promote more ecologically sustainable production practices. But as organic became more mainstream, it attracted the interest of multinational corporations. Scores of pioneering organic brands were acquired by these corporations, starting in the late 1990s, though very few make these ownership ties apparent on their labels. As a result, while “organic” remains a less chemical intensive alternative to conventional agriculture, the label may fall short for other ethical ideals. Organic foods may still be heavily packaged, highly processed, shipped thousands of miles, and produced by exploited laborers.
What can you do regain control of the food you eat?
There are many possibilities, ranging from becoming more informed about the products at your local supermarket to growing your own food.
Research the companies behind your food.
One tool for becoming more informed is GoodGuide. This searchable website has a large and growing database of food products, each one scored according to its health, environmental, and social impacts. There is even an application that allows you to scan a barcode with a mobile device to look up ratings on that product. GoodGuide also provides corporate ownership information for most items. Although this won’t necessarily tell you who really produced it, or where, it will let you know which companies you’re supporting with your purchases.
Another source of information on corporate ownership specifically for organic foods is a series of graphics that can be found on my website. They show the consolidation and “stealth ownership” that has occurred in the organic food processing industry, as well as the distribution and retail sectors. If you are interested in supporting independent organic food producers see the sidebar for a list of major North American brands. These companies are frequently presented with lucrative buyout offers, but have remained committed to maintaining control of their business.
Pay attention to labels
In addition to organic, there are other ecolabels that represent standards less typically embodied in food production. Some of these include Fair Trade, Biodynamic, American Grassfed, and several third-party certified humane labels. Although not all of these standards preclude large-scale operations, they will provide you with more information about some of the ethical implications of your purchases.
Join a food co-op
A good place to find ecolabeled foods is a retail food cooperative, or cooperative buying club. While some of the products they carry have ties to multinational corporations, as a member-owner of your cooperative you have more control over what is sold, as well as a greater voice when communicating with food producers than you would on your own.
Cooperatives have historically supported local food producers, and remain some of the best places to find products made by small farmers and food processors. Recently, however, more mainstream retailers have started emphasizing their supply of local foods. Even Wal-Mart is joining this trend. The demand for local foods is rising for many reasons, including interest in freshness, taste, supporting local economies, protecting green space, reducing fossil fuel consumption, and simply knowing more about where our food is from. But “local” is not as carefully monitored as some other ecolabels, so maintain a healthy degree of skepticism and ask for more details when such claims are vague.
Know (or be) your farmer
To find out even more about your food, talk directly to the producer. Ways to do this include buying a share of a farm (Community Supported Agriculture), shopping at farmers’ markets or roadside stands, or picking the produce yourself. Two great sources for finding these types of farms or markets in your area are LocalHarvest and PickYourOwn.
The surest way to know how your food was produced is to grow your own. Even the smallest indoor spaces can grow sprouts or a small herb garden. Of course, the seed industry has also become highly consolidated, but you can find lists of independent companies, or companies that have pledged not to buy or sell genetically engineered seeds.
In our current food system, finding out where your food is from is not easy. In fact, some journalists and documentary filmmakers have made successful careers of becoming “food detectives,” and informing their audiences of the stories behind the food on their plates. You may not want to go that far yourself. But taking small steps to learn more, buy directly from food producers, or even grow some of your own food, can add up to quite a bit more control.
Egg recall infographic [pdf]: