"[My relationships were] like I was in these movies where the script was only half-written. When I’d get to the end of this half-script, the other actors wanted me to ad lib. But I had never gotten the hang of that. That’s why these movies were always box-office failures. Six of them in the past twenty years. I always blew the lines." ~ from my horrible first novel "Learn How To Pretend." (unpublished)(obviously)

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Illusion of Choice: a Conflict Theorist view of Corporate Control

Nearly ten years ago, I read a magazine article that opened my eyes to the corporate control of culture. In “Our Daily Bread: The Business of Rural America,” the author, Judith Bortner Heffernan, introduced readers to the realities of how our food supply is controlled and by whom. I found that there are three major players in the food game in North America today. These are ConAgra, Archer/Daniels/Midland, and Phillip Morris/Kraft Foods (now known as Altria).  Between these three manufacturers, the vast majority of brands are represented, giving rise to what is known as “the illusion of choice.”  What this means is that when you go to purchase, say a frozen dinner, you may feel like you are choosing between a half-dozen different brands, when in fact all six of these brands are manufactured by ConAgra. No matter what you choose, your dollar is going to the same place.
How did we get to this point? What happened to the individual family farm that some of us remember from our youth? Our former rural agricultural societies are being forced to resemble the makeup of other modern industries. According to Heffernan, “in just one or two generations, the decentralized family farm system of U.S. agriculture, the envy of the rest of the world as a highly efficient producer of abundant food and fiber, has increasingly become a centralized, corporate-controlled, factory food system.” Large corporations are buying up farms. As this happens, the production and processing of our food is controlled by a very few Trans-National corporations (TNCs). Our textbook points to this phenomenon referring to media giants such as Time-Warner. While the product is different, the principle is that same, stating that “as the production […] becomes concentrated in the hands of just a few, there may be less diversity in the content” (Andersen – 56).
According to conflict theory, our culture is subject to economic interests. The theory states that “a few powerful groups are the major producers and distributors of culture” (Andersen – 56). Our culture is controlled by media, political, communication and, even food monopolies. This is a cultural hegemony, giving these groups an incredible amount of control over the “who, what, when, where, and how” of food products offered in the U.S. and abroad. With their astronomical advertising budgets, these corporations also control the airwaves and they tell us what is good for us. They are, in a quite literal sense, the arbiters of taste.
This control of food is broken down in two to types of integration, vertical and horizontal. Vertical integration is the heart and soul of the illusion of choice. In it, a given commodity, corn for instance, is controlled from seed to shelf.  That is to say that every step of the manufacturing process is controlled by the same corporate entity. A company develops a seed hybrid and produces chemicals to make it grow “bigger and better” so that yield is improved. The same company, using a different brand name, develops processes to turn the corn into corn syrup. It also develops chemicals to create a variety of consistencies of the syrup for various uses. That company sells the corn syrup to its sister company for the manufacture of a variety of breakfast cereals under several other brand names.
Horizontal integration is seen at the retail level. One company will control a range of similar products under various brands. This further fosters the illusion of choice. In a grocery store, a consumer can peruse a 50’ by 6’ shelf filled with dozens of different cereal brands to choose from. Quite a choice, and yet once one weeds out the small amount of private label and health food brands, there are very few companies being represented; Primarily Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Post (which is owned by Kraft Foods.)  And, lest one think that the product placement on the shelves is based on convenience of the customer, or even the store management, be aware that every square inch is paid for by the manufacturer. Eye-level placement of product commands a premium price.
An example of horizontal integration would be Healthy Choice vs. Banquet frozen dinners. Both are manufactured by ConAgra. According to Heffernan:
“Three or four firms, most often TNCs, now control between 40 and 80 percent of the slaughtering, milling, processing, and shipping of most grains and livestock in the United States. For the most part, the same firms that dominate the U.S. food system control the system that moves food products in the international arena. While farm families struggle to survive on an average of three to four percent return on their investment, the food firms expect to receive at least 20 percent.”
This is quite similar to our textbook’s discussion of the McDonaldization of America in the way that, despite McDonald’s billions of dollars in annual profit, few of its employees work full-time or have benefits.
ConAgra and Cargill are two examples of firms involved in vertical integration on a national and international scale. They control major portions of the system from the fertilizers, chemicals, and seed to the storage, shipping, and milling of the grain to livestock processing and sales in the form of Healthy Choice meals, Banquet TV Dinners, and Country Pride Chickens.
Imagine you are at the grocery store. You are looking for a drink mix for your kids. You see Country Time, Crystal Light, Kool-Aid and Tang. Knowing that Kraft foods is owned by tobacco giant Phillip Morris, you want to avoid supporting them. Yet all four of those brands are owned by Kraft foods. Want a little confectionary snack? Altoids, Callard & Bowser, Crème-Savers, Life Savers, Milka L'il Scoops, Nabisco Fun Fruits, Terry's, Tobler, Toblerone and Trolli are all Kraft.
My project involved not buying products made by ConAgra, Altria, or Nestlé. I found this to be relatively easy. A few times I caught myself after selecting an item, but put it back before getting to the register. Other times, it wasn’t until I got home that I found I had purchased an item from my list. One blatant example was a package of Kraft Singles – selected because they were on sale. I was surprised to have purchased an organic, non-GMO soy sausage product at Wild Oats that was a ConAgra product.
While much of my alternate purchases came about in the form of fresh produce, the majority of my non-perishable products came from the store’s private label selection. Having worked in the advertising department of a grocery corporation for 7 years, I knew that private label was not as small scale as many would think. Private label manufacturers produce food for hundreds of grocery chains. One such company, Daymon Worldwide, works with “more than 3,500 manufacturers of all conceivable types of Private Label products worldwide” (Daymon). The 35 year-old company has clients in 20,000 stores throughout the world. Its U.S. grocery clients alone account for roughly one third of the nation’s grocery sales. Chances are the same private label manufacturer of a can of Albertson’s corn, produces the same for Smith’s, or Raley’s, or Safeway. The label changes, but the profits still go to one company.
Granted, these private label corporations are not on the scale of ConAgra, but what about the grocery chains themselves? We know that Wal-Mart is huge. But what about regional chains like Smith’s or Albertson’s?  In the course of my research I found that Smith’s (along with Wal-Mart, Albertson’s, Safeway and a few others) control the flow of over half the food in the United States. Albertson’s, headquartered in Idaho is actually owned by the Dutch firm of Albert Heijn. Albert Heijn is, in turn, owned by Royal Ahold – number three grocery retailer in the entire world (Biesada). Profits from that little can of Albertson’s corn are going to a rather large entity.
Project finished, I headed to the grocery store last night to purchase some food. I grabbed a product and threw it in the cart. My 16-year-old son – who has kept me on track throughout the course of the project – asked me if I had checked the manufacturer. “I don’t need to,” I told him. “The experiment is over.” He looked at me like I was a traitor. “But I’ve been telling people about Kraft foods,” he said. “I’ve got other people looking at this.” I realized that this wasn’t a just a class experiment. If I’d discovered a social wrong in our culture, I couldn’t just blow it off. With knowledge comes responsibility. Ten years ago I read, for the first time, about trans-national corporations and thought there wasn’t a way to avoid them. Now I know that all it takes is a little bit of commitment. I used to wonder how one person could really get the word out. Now I see that it is a case of just talking about it with others. Spread the word. We can shape our culture or we can let our culture shape us.

Works Cited
Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor.  Sociology: The Essentials. 3rd Ed. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth, 2005
Biesada, Alex. “Royal Ahold N.V.” Hoovers.com. July 21, 2005.
Clear Channel. July 21, 2005.
Daymon. July 21, 2005.
Ferraro, Cathleen. “'Slotting fee' irks produce suppliers: Ralphs wants payment for use of shelf space.” Sacramento Bee. 5 Feb., 2000. 20 July 2005
Heffernan, Judith Bortner. “Our Daily Bread: The business of rural America.” Sojourners Magazine. Sep-Oct 1995 (Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 16-19).

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