When consumers buy something organic, often they’re also buying into the picture on the package—the cow grazing in a bucolic pasture or a farmer gathering goods by hand from a small field. Yet as the market for organic and natural foods has dramatically increased over the past few decades, and large megastores like Walmart and Costco have gotten into the organic business, the open fields and small farms have given way to factories and feedlots. “Industrial organic” seems like an oxymoron, but as large corporations acquire or control small brands, organic production has had to rise to the challenge. And that means mass production.
The organic label still requires that foods are grown without synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, hormones, and fertilizers, and for the most part, this is better for the environment. But it also means that some of the ideals of the organic movement—eating seasonally and locally, fair treatment for workers, and small-scale production—are almost unheard of when it comes to supplying for the masses. To meet the demand for organic goods, many of the large producers must import their goods from around the world, calling into question the environmental practices of many organic brands.
I like to support small companies and producers, but it can be hard to tell which companies genuinely are small, and which are simply subsidiaries of larger companies. A useful chart put together by Phil Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, helped me to decipher who owns whom.
Tom’s of Maine
In 2006, the huge consumer goods company Colgate-Palmolive bought Tom’s of Maine, a leader in the natural toothpaste and consumer goods market.
Odwalla was one of the first natural juice brands on the market and their rise in popularity didn’t go without notice from the major drink brands. Coca-Cola, whose products aren’t exactly health food, bought Odwalla in 2001. Odwalla also makes a line of energy bars.
Horizon Organic/White Wave Silk
Dean Foods, which is the largest dairy company in the United States, bought Horizon Organic Milk (which also owns The Organic Cow of Vermont) in 2004. Dean also owns White Wave/Silk brand soy milk, Alta Dena, and Mountain High Yogurt, among other brands.
StonyField Farms/Brown Cow
Stonyfield started making small-batch organic yogurt back in 1983 with milk from a small farm. Now the huge French food company Groupe Danone owns both Stonyfield Farms and Brown Cow, and some of their milk may come from cows in New Zealand, where it is powdered and shipped to the U.S.
One of the largest purchases of organic companies is the Hain-Celestial Group, which is controlled by the Heinz Corporation. In addition to Westbrae soy milk, they also own Casbah, Health Valley, Rice Dream, Soy Dream, and a slew of other brands.
Cascadian Farms/Small Planet Foods
General Mills purchased Small Planet Foods—which owns organic brand Cascadian Farm and makes Muir Glen products—in 2000. Cascadian Farms makes cereals, jams, and juices; Muir Glen specializes in tomato products.
The Kellogg food company acquired Kashi, which makes cereals, frozen foods, and snacks, in 2000. Kellogg also owns Morningstar Farms and Bear Naked juices.
Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic
The jam and jelly giant Smuckers acquired Knudsen in 1984 and Santa Cruz Organic in 1989.
Back to Nature
In 2004, Kraft Foods, the brand that brings us Oreos and Kool-Aid, purchased Back to Nature, which offers such products as granola, crackers, and nuts. One of the reasons I try to avoid Kraft products is because until recently they were a subsidiary of the Altria Group, which also owns Phillip Morris, one of the largest cigarette companies in the world. Connecting the dots from granola to a pack of Marlboros may be a stretch, but they are connected, and they’re a conglomerate I’d personally rather not support. Kraft also owns Boca Burger, the makers of vegetarian burgers, and Balance Bars.
While large scale doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve changed their product or commitment to being organic, it might mean those quaint stories you read on the back of the label are a bit deceiving. If you’re interested in buying organic products that aren’t produced in a large scale factory or shipped across the world to reach your dinner plate, the easiest way to ensure you’re getting local and environmentally sound food is to shop at farmer’s markets, support small producers near your home (like dairies, cheese producers, or bread companies that make their products on site), and get to know where your food comes from.
Updated April 15, 2011