Big Food Gets a Big ‘F’ From Oxfam

How do your favorite food monopoly brands stack up?

How do food corporations treat its suppliers, like this cocoa farmer? Oxfam's 'Behind the Brands' digs through the supply chain, looking for answers. (Photo: Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images)

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There are lots of ways to divvy up global demographics, but when you think about it, there’s a pretty simple dichotomy that encompasses a whole host of chronic social and environmental issues: those who have Pop-Tarts, and those who don’t. Or Kit-Kats. Or Oreos.

And we’re not just talking about the scourge of obesity in so-called “developed” nations. Rather, as the international advocacy group Oxfam points out, there’s a kind of sick irony to the fact that 1.4 billion people around the world are overweight or obese, while almost 900 million people go hungry.

But the truly twisted reality is this: So many of those who are hungry and impoverished are laboring to grow the raw commodities—the sugar and cocoa, soy and corn, etc.—that are then ultimately sold to one of a handful of ginormous global food companies and transformed into the Coca-Cola, Cocoa Puffs, Chips Ahoy and Cheetos that are making the rest of us so fat.

Yep, in case you hadn’t guessed it, your Pringles just got very political.

Today Oxfam launched a slick, full-on consumer advocacy campaign, Behind the Brands, that appears to target just about everything that’s fundamentally wrong with the global food supply: From the (generally trampled upon) rights of small-scale farmers to the (generally horrible) environmental consequences of industrial-scale agriculture. And it’s setting its sights on the world’s ten biggest food producers.

First and foremost, Behind the Brands seeks to untangle the rather byzantine web that corporations have long woven around their popular brands, all in an effort to disconnect the marketing and image of the brand itself from whatever may be, um, regrettable in the food maker’s track record.

As far as the corporations are concerned, there’s no reason, for example, that you should ever connect Unilever’s shady dealings with a palm oil producer in Indonesia accused of illegally clearing forests and “violently driving people off their land” with Skippy peanut butter or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (both Unilever products).

Except, according to Oxfam, maybe you should.

Combined, the “Big 10” food companies generate more than $1.1 billion a day in revenue; they hold enormous sway over how the farmworkers who cultivate all the food that goes into making all those products are treated.

Or they could, if they genuinely seemed to care. Which, basically, they don’t, judging by the results of Oxfam’s Behind the Brands scorecard, which ranks the Big 10 on seven broad categories:

Women: Do “the policies of the Big 10 promote women’s welfare and encourage their inclusion in the food supply chain on equal terms”?

Small-scale farmers: How do “the Big 10’s policies ensure that those who feed the world don’t go hungry themselves”?

Farm workers: Do a company’s policies “enforce fair working conditions along the supply chain”?

Climate change: Is a company working to mitigate harmful greenhouse-gas emissions and to assess and implement long-term solutions?

Land: Has the company “put in place policies to ensure their supply chains are free from ‘land grabs’ ”?

Water: Is the company committed to “respecting the human right to water, to disclosing and reducing water use and discharges throughout its operations, and to better manage the use of water from water-stressed regions”?

Transparency: Does the company readily make information available to allow the public to assess the impact of its practices?

As the report that accompanied the launch of the Oxfam campaign says, “[F]ood and beverage companies themselves often know little about their own supply chains. Where a particular product is grown, by whom, and in what conditions are questions few companies can answer accurately and rarely share with consumers.”

Let’s generously call the current Oxfam scorecard a “baseline” measurement, which seems particularly apt, given that most of the Big 10 can’t fall much farther. Only one, Nestlé, manages to break through the 50 percent barrier, scoring 54 percent overall. Kellogg’s, General Mills and Mondelez (formerly Kraft—who knew?) don’t even make it out of the 20 percent range, while Associated British Foods (home of brands ranging from Mazola corn oil and Durkee spices to Twining’s tea) comes in dead last with just 19 percent.

If you think you have the stomach to find out how some of your favorite brands fared, you can check out Behind the Brands here, which includes links encouraging you to take action.

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