Food For Thought – The London Economic

By Toby James

Food and Drinks Industry

The Illusion Of Choice And Big Business’s Position In Food And Drink

There is a lot of money in necessities.

The food and drink industry commands vast amounts of capital, yet much of this is under the control of a surprisingly small number of brands.

Coca-Cola claims ownership of at least 13 other brands, each the king of its respective sector of the soft drinks industry. Fanta, Sprite, Dr Pepper, Schweppes.

Many of these brands have ‘diet’ or ‘light’ versions of their products available, indeed, Coca-Cola, the drink, has two of these options and another on the way.

Coca-Cola Life will be released in September 2014, and is the company’s “first lower-calorie cola sweetened from natural sources”. It serves as a symbol of Coca-Cola’s refusal to stop growing, and there are plenty of statistics to reflect this attitude.

In 2013, Coca-Cola completed their acquisition of ZICO coconut water, adding yet another brand to their menagerie. In 2013, Coca-Cola opened their 43rd production plant in China, and their first bottling plant in Myanmar.

They also reached 1.9 billion sales of Coca-Cola products per day. Yes, every four days enough Coca-Cola products are consumed to give one to every person on the planet.

In fact, Coca-Cola, a brand proud to announce their position of #3 on Interbrand’s Best Global Brands List, with a value of $79.2 billion, actually “donated more than $2.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions” to disaster relief efforts in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013.

This may sound impressive on the face of it, and that’s largely because it is. Not wanting to detract from the fact that it is a very worthwhile cause, it must be borne in mind that Coca-Cola probably gained many future Coke drinkers from this exploit, and no doubt the relief boxes were plastered with Coca-Cola’s ubiquitous logo.

So ubiquitous is this logo that it has ceased to be a symbol of a corporate enterprise and has become a fashion statement. A walk through any busy street will reveal multiple t-shirts bearing the infamous ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ slogan emblazoned across the front. Free advertising.

Where Coca-Cola has the drinks industry in check, the food industry lies slave to American powerhouse Kraft. With a name meaning strength in German, they sure don’t disappoint.

The pride with which they announce that “98 per cent of North American households have Kraft brands in their pantries and refrigerators”, at the very top of the “Brands” section of their website, shows a determination to expand into the two per cent who remain untouched by their empire. In the eyes of big business, this is what we are. Percentage points. Areas of a sector to be conquered.

Controversy was aroused in the UK when confectioner extraordinaire Cadbury was taken over by Kraft in 2010. Many workers feared for their jobs, and indeed, a year later, despite a nationwide £50 million investment, many jobs were cut.

Although Kraft is far more ubiquitous in America than in Europe, many household names in Europe are part of the Kraft family too. Philadelphia soft cheese? Kraft. Capri-Sun fruit drinks? Kraft. Tassimo coffee? Maxwell House coffee? Both Kraft.

The illusion of choice is stronger today than ever before. A large amount of soft drinks are merely sub-brands of Coca-Cola. Many American savoury options are owned by Kraft. Walking towards the checkout at any shop in the UK, confectionary is often on offer. A large portion of the supposed choice is comprised of Cadbury products, and hence Kraft products. Another large portion is the Mars chocolate family, and a third choco-giant is Nestlé. Kit-Kat, Aero, Yorkie. Nestlé.

Nestlé have been the subject of a significant boycott since the 1970s, all due to its marketing of formula milk in Africa. In 1974, Mike Muller wrote an article for War on Want titled “The Baby Killer”, which described itself as “An investigation into the promotion and sale of powdered baby milks in the Third World.”

This article accused formula milks of killing babies, and Nestlé of  neglecting to conduct proper research into their attempts to sell formula milk to complement, or replace breast milk, which is, of course, the natural, healthy and free method for feeding babies.

Understandably, this emotive piece angered people, notably in Switzerland, the UK and the US. Boycotts sprung up, and some are to this day ongoing. This doesn’t seem to have halted the Nestlé machine. Nestlé products still hold prominent positions in the sectors of coffee, chocolate, ice cream and indeed baby milk.

Nestlé seem proud to announce that they are the “first major manufacturer to become a ‘living wage’ employer in the UK”, and in terms of workers rights this is a very notable announcement, and is to be commended.

The issue really is the ubiquity of certain companies. When the companies supplying necessities such as food and drink are this big, there is obviously a question over whether the quality of their products is their priority.

Profit is a priority for any business, and this is arguably the way it should be. Shareholders need dividends. The innovators and executives who make everything work should be paid, but when a business’s influence has transcended their industry and become something fashionable to advertise, there is an issue. When a business shuts a factory it had promised to keep open, there is an issue. When a product is launched, not to fill a gap in the market, but merely to make more money, there is an issue.

Diet Coke’s novelty wore off, so Coke Zero was needed to reinvigorate public excitement over the Coke brand. Now we’ve outgrown that, Coca-Cola Life is needed. A new Coke for a new generation.  A cycle to be repeated until the inevitable Kraft-Coca-Cola merger?

One world. One people. One brand?

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