Behind the Brands

Oxfam published an interesting report and interactive website last month looking at the social and environmental policies of the 'Big 10' global food and beverage companies.

'Behind the Brands' examines company policies in seven areas: women, small-scale farmers, farm workers, water, land, climate change and transparency.

Following the publication of the report and associated campaigning by Oxfam, the three big chocolate industry players - Mars, Nestlé and Mondelēz International (which used to be Kraft) - have all responded by making commitments to tackle gender inequality.

"The impact of Mondelēz International, Mars and Nestlé's promises, if kept, will reverberate across cocoa supply chains. Empowering women cocoa farmers has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people, some of whom are earning less than $2 a day."

- Judy Beals, Behind the Brands campaign manager

Although none of the Big 10 companies comes out of this scorecard particularly well - not a single one gets an overall 'Good' or 'Fair' score - Nestlé and Unilever emerge at the top of the list with a 'Some progress' overall score. General Mills, Kellogg's and Associated British Foods languish at the bottom with a 'Poor' score.

Associated British Foods hit back at the Oxfam report, saying that “the idea that ABF would use a ‘veil of secrecy’ in order to hide the ‘human cost’ of its supply chain is simply ridiculous” although they also pledged that their next corporate responsibility report this autumn “will confirm significant improvement in disclosure from the previous report”.

The Behind the Brands website does a great job of making visible the small number of huge companies that own so many of the everyday brands that most people are familiar with. Twinings for example is owned by Associated British Foods; Ben & Jerry's by Unilever; Cadbury by Mondelēz International; Quaker Oats by Pepsico.

There's an opportunity to go a step further with this tactic and start to examine the less well known giants of the food system: the traders and processers. The big four are Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Louise Dreyfus and, one of the largest and most secretive companies in the world, Cargill.

Cargill is a privately owned US company that dominates the global grain trade. It was founded in 1865, had a total revenue of $133 billion in 2012, and operates in 65 countries around the world.

"Very few people are aware of Cargill's global activities, and even fewer could describe them, including (judging by the many I have talked with) most of Cargill's own employees. This is no accident. A picture of the whole would be disturbing to many people and would reveal the power of the corporation. Experience suggests it is better to remain largely invisible."

- p.7, Invisible Giant by Brewster Kneen

Although secretive, Cargill spends considerable energy on influencing government policy. In public and in private, they actively brief against what could be called food sovereignty or self sufficiency. They argue that only by moving away from subsistence agriculture and commercialising food production can we address poverty in the developing world.

Cargill is a truly transnational company, operating effortlessly across national jurisdictions, and its influence extends across a staggering range of commodities.

"We are the flour in your bread, the wheat in your noodles, the salt on your fries. We are the corn in your tortillas, the chocolate in your dessert, the sweetener in your soft drink. We are the oil in your salad dressing and the beef, pork or chicken you eat for dinner. We are the cotton in your clothing, the backing on your carpet and the fertilizer in your field."

- 2001 Cargill corporate brochure

The advantage of focusing on the 'Big 10' food and beverage companies in the Oxfam report is that they are visible giants known to the public and susceptible to campaigning pressure. But let's keep an eye on the invisible giants as well.