• Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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The ethics of big food


Last month, Oxfam, the international aid organization, launched a campaign called “Behind the Brands.” The goal is to assess the transparency of the world’s ten biggest food and beverage companies concerning how their goods are produced, and to rate their performance on sensitive issues like the treatment of small-scale farmers, sustainable water and land use, climate change, and exploitation of women.

Consumers have an ethical responsibility to be aware of how their food is produced, and the big brands have a corresponding obligation to be more transparent about their suppliers, so that their customers can make informed choices about what they are eating. In many cases, the biggest food companies themselves do not know how they perform on these issues, betraying a profound lack of ethical responsibility on their part.

Nestlé scored highest on transparency, as they provide information on at least some of their commodity sources and audit systems. But even its rating is only “fair.” General Mills was at the bottom of the ranking.

In addition to this lack of transparency, Oxfam’s report identifies several deficiencies common to all of the Big 10 food companies. They are not providing small-scale farmers with an equal opportunity to sell into their supply chains, and when small-scale farmers do have the opportunity to sell to the big brands’ suppliers, they may not receive a fair price for their product.

The Big 10 are also not taking sufficient responsibility to ensure that their larger-scale farm suppliers pay a decent living wage to their workers. There are 450 million wage workers in agriculture worldwide, and in many countries they are often inadequately paid, with 60 percent living in poverty.

Some of the Big 10 are doing more than others to develop ethical policies

in these areas. Unilever has committed itself to sourcing more raw materials from small-scale farmers, and has pledged 100 percent sustainable sourcing for all of its main commodities by 2020. This policy gave Unilever the highest score on openness to small farmers, with a rating of “fair.” Danone, General Mills, and Kellogg’s were at the bottom, with a rating of “very poor.”

For many years, Nestlé was criticized for marketing infant formula in developing countries, where breast-feeding was available and much healthier than bottle-feeding. It revised its policies in response to that criticism, but more recently has been targeted again for using child and forced labor to produce its cocoa.

In 2011, the company used the Fair Labor Association to assess its supply chain. The assessment confirmed that many of Nestlé’s suppliers were using child and forced labor, and the company has now begun to address the problem. As a result, Nestlé, along with Unilever and Coca-Cola, scored “fair” on workers’ rights. None of the Big 10 did better. Kellogg’s received the lowest score in this category.

Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions, accounting for more than the entire transport sector, and it is also one of the sectors most at risk from climate change, as recent changes in rainfall patterns have made evident. Clearing tropical forests for grazing or palm-oil production releases large quantities of stored carbon into the atmosphere. Grazing ruminant animals, like cattle and sheep, also contribute significantly to climate change.

Here, too, the big brands receive low grades from Oxfam, mostly for failing even to track the emissions for which they are directly or indirectly responsible. Nestlé was the only company to achieve a “fair” rating, with Associated British Foods at the bottom, with a “very poor” rating.

Anyone with Internet access can visit Oxfam’s Web site and see how the big brands rank on each of seven ethically significant indicators. The highest scores currently are in the “fair” range, with not a single Big 10 company receiving a “good” rating in any category.

Individual consumers are encouraged to contact the companies directly and urge them to demonstrate greater responsibility for the way in which they obtain the ingredients for their products. In this way, Oxfam hopes, its “Behind the Brands” campaign will trigger a “race to the top” in which big corporations compete to achieve the highest possible score, and to become known as truly transparent actors that produce food and beverages with a high degree of ethical responsibility.

The changes that have already occurred show that if big corporations know that their consumers want them to act more ethically, they will do so. To be effective, such a campaign requires individual consumers to take it upon themselves to become better informed about the food and beverages that they consume, to make their voices heard, and to make purchasing choices that are influenced by ethics as well as by taste and price.