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Burt's Bees, Tom's of Maine, Naked Juice: Your Favorite Brands? Take Another Look -- They May Not Be What They Seem

One of AlterNet's most popular articles of the year: Confident that you are buying good, socially conscious brands? Find out the real story.

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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."

"What's important to keep in mind is that these big corporations are getting into organics not because they have doubts about their prior business practices or doubts about chemical, industrial agriculture," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "They're getting in because they want to make a lot of money -- they want to make it fast." He said the companies couldn't care less about "family farmers making the transition to organic farms."

What does this all mean? One conclusion it is easy to come to is that big food companies and the stores and supermarkets that deliver their goods have stretched and abused descriptions of food until they are sometimes almost meaningless, and consumers believe that they are getting more benefits than they actually are. Consumers "walk down the aisle in the grocery stores' health and beauty area, and they're confronted with 'natural' at every turn," says Daniel Fabricant, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association. "We just don't want to see the term misused any longer."

On the other hand, Roger Cowe, a financial commentator states: "If you want to change what people consume on a grand scale, you have to penetrate mass markets. And you can't do that if you're a small, specialist brand stuck in the organic or whole-food niche, even if that means you are on supermarket shelves. It is a familiar dilemma: stay pure and have a big impact on a small scale, or compromise and have a small impact on a grand scale."

Some think that socially responsible business sellers don't lose it all when selling out. Both Craig Sams from Green and Black chocolate and the late Anita Roddick from the Body Shop ( sold to L'Oreal/Nestle -- one of the most vilified of multinational companies) have said that they believe that an acquired ethical company can influence its new parent to improve its corporate behavior.

 
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