It is easy to find the very clear, yet invisible, line drawn between consumers’ stance on the recent General Mill’s $82 million Annie’s Homegrown acquisition. A simple stroll through the web will all at once land you in a pile of consumer outcry and applause. You can find simple words of thanks and praise for hopes of affordability and great availability down to petitions of protest and disgust surrounding Annie’s “sell out” betrayal.
This dispute poses significant questions. How critical should we be regarding food company acquisitions and takeovers? Each year, independently owned companies shrink to a smaller number. Most consumers choose to support these companies based on their organic standards and their non-commercial ownership. Which is more important, the organic standards or the independent ownership? If every company is required to comply with the FDA and USDA Organic Standards, would it be more productive to focus our attention to the standards and policies every company is required to adhere to and therefore evaluated or concentrate our concern toward their independent or commercial ownership status? After all, regardless of a company’s ownership, isn’t this supposed to be our safety net to high quality food standards? It is an understatement to say the lines are blurry, and the answer will ultimately remain in the hands of the consumer.
With more and more consolidating from an independently owned status to commercial acquisitions, the pressure should be targeted toward our regulation standards in order for companies to comply with our best interests in mind. However, there is a significant complexity surrounding this relationship as to who will take the lead, the food companies (commercial or independent) or the regulation standards (government)? Of course, boycotting and petitioning will seek the attention of the companies losing business for an otherwise loyal customer following, but will this be enough to pressure the federal regulatory sector? The hope is that food companies will begin to advocate for the interests of its consumers based on the negative or positive feedback they are receiving for their product offering. These are the complexities surrounding our food choices. Simply buying or simply boycotting a company may not get the results we ultimately need from our regulatory sector.
With this in mind, we know General Mills operates according to and not limited to our current FDA and USDA Organic standards (specifically referring to organic products). General Mill’s ownership of Annie’s Homegrown will not change either company’s required compliance. Therefore, if we are unhappy with these standards, it is a political and government regulatory issue rather than company ownership.
The organic ownership chart has changed and evolved significantly over the years. While it is idealistic to say every organic grower and producer should be a small, locally owned company and/or family operation, it may not be realistic. It is even easier to say or take a negative perspective regarding the organic map of ownership, especially since it has grown toward having fewer and fewer locally owned companies, unpurchased by larger corporations for their name. I think it is important to remember it may not be a “sell out” of standards, as much as it is the ownership itself. While there are many complexities of power lying beneath these layers of ownership, ultimately each company is required to operate and produce products according to the federal food and organic standards.
Because we all love more opportunities to purchase and support organically grown products, it seems to be more productive to analyze and encourage higher standards in our federal regulations, especially regarding organic labeling requirements. We should also consider how each company adheres to our current regulations. If companies maintain and even exceed the minimum and maximum requirements, imagine the possibility behind better developed regulations and higher policy standards at our regulatory level. This can only be fueled by consumers. As we can see from the recent Annie’s Homegrown acquisition, the consumer demand is certainly present, we just may need to refocus where we place our disappointment and demands for change.
Ultimately, consumer responsibility will be required to determine the healthiest food options from any food supplier, independent or commercially owned. The political complexities surrounding these options certainly create a barrier for clear and decisive answers. However, supporting the healthier option (organic) and avoiding pitting healthy options against each other is a major step toward exhibiting the consumer demand for higher food quality standards. Of course, supporting local community-based businesses and food suppliers whenever possible, both logistically and financially, will considerably impact the overall plight.
Photos via: Annie's Homegrown -- General Mills