Handful of “Food Giants” Profit from Illusion of Consumer Choice

by Vins
Published: Updated:

A joint investigation by Food and Water Watch and the Guardian provides new details on the “market dominance” of the largest US food producers, Nina Lakhani, Aliya Uteuova, and Alvin Chang reported for the Guardian reported in July 2021. The report found that a handful of “food giants”—including Kraft Heinz, General Mills, Conagra, Unilever, and Delmonte—control an average of 64% of sales of 61 popular grocery items. Amanda Starbuck, a policy analyst at Food and Water Watch, told the Guardian, “It’s a system designed to funnel money into the hands of corporate shareholders and executives while exploiting farmers and workers and deceiving consumers about choice, abundance and efficiency.”

As an example, of market consolidation and the illusion of consumer choice, the Guardian noted that three companies own 93 percent of carbonated soft drink brands; 55 percent of the market share of canned corn is owned by four firms; and PepsiCo owns five of the most popular dip brands, including Tostitos, Lay’s and Fritos, thus controlling 88 percent of the dip market. Despite supermarket aisles full of shelves stacked with different breakfast cereals, just three companies—General Mills, Kellogg, and Post—own 73 percent of the cereals on offer. Between 2011 and 2020, the Belgian-based conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired 17 formerly independent craft breweries; it now owns more than 600 beer brands.

The food monopolies lurking beneath the appearance of consumer choices are one consequence of “political lobbying and weak regulation which enabled a wave of unchecked mergers and acquisitions,” the Guardian reported. As the food giants gets bigger, farmers and consumers lose power. The people who “harvest, pack and sell us our food have the least power,” the Guardian reported. Just 15 cents of every dollar spent in US supermarkets goes to farmers, the study found, and “at least half of the 10 lowest-paid jobs in the US are in the food industry.” Corporate consolidation drives up food prices and reduces consumers access to food.  Starbuck, the Food and Water analyst noted that supermarket mergers have driven out smaller grocers and regional chains. “We have roughly one-third fewer grocery stores today than we did 25 years ago, according to the US census bureau,” she told the Guardian.

As of April 2022, a search using ProQuest’s U.S. Major News Dailies suggests that none of the major US newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, or the Washington Post, have covered the joint Food and Water Watch/Guardian report on US food monopolies and their economic consequences.

Source: Nina Lakhani, Aliya Uteuova, and Alvin Chang,  “Revealed: The True Extent of America’s Food Monopolies, and Who Pays the Price,” The Guardian, July 14, 2021.

Student Researcher: Ethan Reiderer (Saint Michael’s College)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (Saint Michael’s College)