When brands change hands

Unilever’s 2017 buy-out of Pukka Herbs raised the issue of popular organic brands becoming acquisition targets for multinational companies – in this case a huge corporation whose products range from processed foods to detergents, with brands including PG Tips and Domestos, and operations which include palm oil and tea plantations.

This post discusses how widespread this phenomenon has become and explains the advantage that bulk buying clubs have in responding to such shifts.

A popular infographic from the United States makes plain how many of the country’s organic brands have been gobbled up by huge food corporations. Of 81 independent processing companies in 1995, just 15 remained ten years later. The 2014 version (below) laid bare further consolidation.

The chart shows that many iconic organic [US] brands are owned by the titans of junk food, processed food and sugary beverages—the same corporations that spent millions to defeat GMO labeling initiatives in California and Washington – Cornucopia Institute.

Graphic showing ownership of major US organic brands
Click for hi-res PDF from the Cornucopia Institute website.

Several of the brand names making up this web will be familiar in Europe – such as Seeds of Change (owned by Mars), Green and Blacks (now part of Kraft Foods) and Ellas’ Kitchen (under the Hain Celestial portfolio).

Overall, major organic brands sold in Europe are far less corporatised relative to those on the other side of the Atlantic. However, similar ownership shifts have been steadily advancing. In 2016, the Provamel and Alpro plant-milk brands were acquired by Danone, the French multinational more commonly associated with dairy-based produce. Unilever’s subsequent takeover of Pukka gave it a major foothold in the organic herbal teas market. Through ramped up marketing, it has become an increasingly dominant label in health food shop displays while also significantly raising its profile in supermarkets.

Although health food stores will tend to stick with well-known names, staying silent on ethical issues, co-ops and bulk buying clubs are led by the values of their members, not by sales. Their nimble and democratic nature means that they can quickly respond to shifts in ownership. Groups may opt to raise awareness and leave the ultimate choice with members or follow-through on collective purchasing policies and simply de-list brands that cross their red lines.

Happily, ownership shifts are not simply one way traffic. Thus, although the Barleycup brand was swallowed up, for a time, by Smithfield Foods Inc. (a U.S. corporation mainly known for vast industrial pig farming operations), in 2013 it was sold on to a modest-sized Polish company Grana sp. z o.o., which was already manufacturing the coffee-substitute drink under contract. In effect, it returned from the dark side!

This site will be keeping a close watching eye on such changes and sharing information that may be useful. The magazine ‘Ethical Consumer’ is also highly recommended for its ongoing research work.

About this site

This site aims to encourage and support the setting up of further bulk buying clubs and small food co-ops in Ireland by sharing the experience of individuals who have operated a ‘pop-up wholefoods’ model over a number of years. Occasional blog posts also consider product-related issues.