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The Ethics of Big Food

PRINCETON – 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.