Freedom of Choice at the Supermarket: Not


Market photo courtesy Michael Broadway
Your supermarket is a cornucopia, overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables from around the world, no matter the season; counters full of meats, poultry, and fish; aisles stacked high with boxes and bags, cans and cartons of every kind of cereal, drink, dessert, and snack a body could want.

Cornucopia, indeed.

The typical American grocery store is stocked with 50,000 items, more than triple what it was 30 years ago. In 2010 alone, more than 15,000 new foods and beverages came to market in the U.S., but such is the competition for our food dollar that many of these new products will fail. So much to choose from, no wonder we usually come home with stuff that wasn’t on our shopping list.

But how much choice do we really have?

Just five companies account for almost half of supermarket food sales in the United States. And what about the food those companies offer us? Let’s take meat. A meal is not a proper meal without it, at least for 97 out of 100 Americans.

Just four companies provide us with 79 percent of our beef, 65 percent of our pork, and 57 percent of our poultry. So, no matter what kind of meat we have for dinner, most likely it comes from the same handful of companies: Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield. What, you say, you can never decide which bacon to bring home: Armour, Eckrich, Farmland, Gwaltney, John Morrell, Smithfield–all owned by Smithfield.

OK, so market power is consolidated in the hands of a few multinational corporations. What does this mean for the food we eat and the people who produce it?

Market Consolidation Erodes Control
Control of our food supply has been wrenched from independent farmers and ranchers in the corporate boardrooms of agribusiness giants. Since 1980, 4 out of 10 farmers who raise cattle and 9 out of 10 who raise hogs have gone out of business. Under this Darwinian survival of the fittest model, control of most production is now in the hands of large corporations.

But farmers still raise cows, and pigs, and chickens, don’t they? Well, yes they do, but most of them don’t really own the animals they raise. Virtually all the chickens sold in the United States are grown under production contracts to a handful of companies, who own the birds from egg to supermarket. Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. poultry company, contracts with about 6,000 of what it calls family farmers to raise its chickens. They are expected to grow birds to slaughter weight under strict company guidelines as quickly and as cheaply as possible. If Tyson is not satisfied, it may cancel their contracts with little notice and even less recourse, leaving them under a mountain of debt for their otherwise useless chicken houses.

Nine out of 10 hogs are owned directly by or raised under contract to companies like Smithfield or Tyson. Beef is poised to follow in the footsteps of poultry and pork: more than half of the cattle now slaughtered in the United States are owned directly by corporations or raised under contract. And the companies that bring us our burgers, pork chops, and wings are very often one and the same.

Lower Prices For Farmers and Higher Prices For Eaters
Our food system is an hourglass. In one chamber are tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers, but their sands are steadily receding. In the other are hundreds of millions of eaters, whose sands continue to swell. In the narrow middle between growers and eaters sit a handful of giant corporations, what economists call an oligopoly.

Those who grow the animals that become our meat are more and more likely to face a monopsony–only one buyer for their animals. Eaters would seem to have unlimited choice as they cruise the supermarket aisles, but those myriad choices are presented to them by a few companies, who use monopolistic practices to expand their product lines and increase their market share.

The results: lower prices for farmers and higher prices for eaters. Over the last decade retail meat prices have risen more than 40 percent! But during that same time, gross farm income for small- and medium-sized hog and cattle farmers fell by 32 percent. Seventy-one percent of chicken farmers live below the federal poverty line.

Anti-Choice Farm Bill, Pro-Choice “Eaters’ Bill of Rights”
Choice. More and more farmers are going broke for lack of it.

President Obama promised to reform American agriculture through vigorous antitrust enforcement. We are still waiting. In the 2008 farm bill, Congress instructed the Department of Agriculture to write regulations to restore fairness and competition in livestock and poultry production, but under pressure from interests that dominate industrial agriculture, it has refused to either approve or fund enforcement of almost all the proposed reforms.

Can we expect any better from the 2012 farm bill currently before Congress?

Each of us chooses the food we eat, and those choices help shape prevailing systems of food production, processing, and packaging. Our food choices have economic implications; they have moral ones too.

The National Catholic Rural Life Conference has proclaimed an Eaters’ Bill of Rights. Each of us has the right to know how our food is grown and processed. We have a right to food that is safe, nutritious, and produced under socially just circumstances, without harming air, water, land–or people.

We also have a right to know the country of origin of our food and whether it has been genetically modified. The Conference advocates policies that “uphold the dignity of family farmers,” and opposes the contract-grower system of agricultural production, which makes “serfs of family farmers.”

Taking Action For Consumer And Farmer Choice
Do we want a food system built on the illusion of variety, abundance, and choice, while systematically monopolizing and exploiting both those who provide its raw products and those who purchase the foods made from them? Since the U.S. government has turned a deaf ear to concerns about monopolistic practices of the giant corporations that control our food, what can we do?

For one thing, we can look for viable alternatives to the dominant food system. And viable alternatives do exist. A growing number of producers and providers do offer something different. And there are farmers markets, community-supported agriculture and box schemes. Why not give backyard gardens or even backyard chickens a try?

Sure, these options may not be as convenient. And they may not be cheap. But they will be fresher, tastier, and safer. And they will come from food systems that are, in the long run, far more sustainable–and just. Isn’t that worth a few cents more at the cash register? Its your choice. And your choices have significant consequences for the food security, safety, and quality of all of us.

By Don Stull in association with Michael Broadway

This article first appeared on CSRwire Talkback on July 5, 2012

Don Stull is professor of anthropology, University of Kansas. He is also on the board of directors of the Organization for Competitive Markets. He can be reached at Michael Broadway is professor of geography and dean of Arts and Sciences, Northern Michigan University. He can be reached at Their most recent publication is Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry of North America. Second Edition (Wadsworth, 2012), which integrates what they have learned from three decades studying the industry and its impact on communities, farmers, processing workers, and farmed animals.

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