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Brand Awareness

Your favourite products may not be what they seem

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"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.

The Sweet Tooth

After the Kashi news, I wondered what was next? I didn't have to go any further than the organic chocolate aisle of my favorite deli to find Green and Black's organic chocolate was taken over in 2005 by Schweppes, the 10th-largest company in North American packaged-food sales. And even more surprising to chocolate lovers is that Dagoba Chocolate, which had a little cult chocolate following for a while, is surprise, surprise, owned by Hershey Foods.

There seems to be an apt analogy between the huge growth in the "naturalization" of packaged goods in grocery stores and supermarket aisles and the massive transformation of organic fresh foods. Organic farming began as a grassroots movement to produce food that was healthier and better for the land. But it is now a huge, $20 billion industry, increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies. Furthermore, when the government certifies food as "organic," it has nothing to do with the original values of locally grown produce, workers being treated fairly, etc.

So it may cheer some to know that on the East Coast, McDonald's has served fair-trade-certified Newman's Own organic coffee in stores, while others may cringe at the words of Lee Scott, former CEO of WalMart, when he said, "We are particularly excited about organic food, the fastest-growing category in all of food."

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