The name Niman Ranch is well known among socially conscious diners for its sustainable practices. The company’s website describes its products as All-Natural Meats Raised by Small Family Farmers Committed to Sustainable & Humane Practices. It’s a comforting brand identity for many foodies hoping to avoid buying meat produced in the industrialized, factory farm system. But the problem with the food movement’s common tactic of relying solely on boycotting goods from Big Food was illuminated once again this week when news broke that Perdue is buying Niman Ranch.
Perdue, the nation’s third largest chicken producer, is synonymous with poor business practices, particularly in regards to the way it treats its contract poultry producers. As awareness of the pitfalls of industrialized meat production grows, more consumers want to buy food from companies with better environmental, labor and animal welfare practices. Clearly, this represents a threat to Big Ag, but rather than clean up their acts, corporations are responding by acquiring innovative companies like Niman Ranch. We saw a similar development several months ago when Hormel announced plans to buy Applegate Farms.
In fact, we’ve witnessed a slew of potential mergers in recent years as the food industry experiences massive consolidation. It’s the reason why “we can’t shop our way out of the problem” has become something of a mantra around Food & Water Watch—while buying better is admirable, just making good shopping decisions won’t fix the industrialized food system. And voting with your dollars gets a lot more confusing when buying a good brand still sends your money to a big corporate parent whose overall practices you don’t support.
With so many brands of food out there, it may seem like our choices of what to eat are almost limitless. But they’re not. In 30 grocery categories, four or fewer companies control at least 75 percent of sales. Many firms sell multiple brands of the same product, which lead consumers to believe they are choosing among competitors when they are actually just choosing among products made by the same firm – that may have been made at the same factory. Ironically, this is even true among so-called organic and healthful brands, which are increasingly being bought up by large food companies. For example, Kellogg’s owns both Kashi and Bear Naked brands, even though their packaging and websites make them seem independent.
In addition to limiting choice, undermining small and medium farmers and fattening the coffers of major corporations, this industry consolidation also harms our wallets. Fewer corporations controlling more companies means higher prices at the grocery store for you and me.
What does this latest proposed acquisition mean for the practices used to produce Niman Ranch products? It’s too soon to say, but it certainly won’t be the last good food company that gets gobbled up. Above all, this development illustrates why we need the federal government to step up and prevent Big Food from riding roughshod over consumers and independent food producers. The Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice need to investigate and document the level of consolidation in our food industry and put a moratorium on food and agriculture mergers so farmers, consumers and workers don’t continue to get a raw deal.