Revealed: the true extent of America’s food monopolies, and who pays the price

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Dry dinner mixes with meat

98%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks

97%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Single serve prepared pasta dishes

94%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Single serve prepared sloppy sauce

94%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Carbonated soft drinks

93%market shareowned by 3 firms

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Dip

91%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Dry mac & cheese mixes

87%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Popcorn, microwave

87%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Canned tuna

85%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Baby formula (liquid concentrate)

85%market shareowned by 3 firms

Revealed: the true extent of America’s food monopolies, and who pays the price

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Mayonnaise

83%market shareowned by 3 firms

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Baby food

82%market shareowned by 3 firms

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Refrigerated soy milk

81%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Refrigerated almond milk

81%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Chocolate confectionary

80%market shareowned by 3 firms

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Beer

79%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Pasta (dry plain)

79%market shareowned by 3 firms

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Bagels/bialys

77%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Frozen meat substitute

76%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Canned pineapple

75%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Yogurt

75%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Breakfast cereals

73%market shareowned by 3 firms

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Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit

72%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Processed/imitation cheese slices

71%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Prepared soup

70%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Wine makers

69%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Coffee

68%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Single serve prepared salads

68%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Canned salmon

67%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Snack bars

66%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Frozen pizza

66%market shareowned by 3 firms

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Sour cream

64%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Doughnuts

62%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Biscuits (cookies & crackers)

61%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Fresh bread

61%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Canned green peas

60%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Canned potato/sweet potato

59%market shareowned by 2 firms

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Turkey producers (pounds processed)

58%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Canned tomato

58%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Tea – bags/loose

58%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Bottled canned green beans

56%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Canned corn

55%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Fresh cut salad

54%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Table sauces

53%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Ready to drink coconut milk

52%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Rice

52%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Bacon

52%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Bottled/canned beans (no green beans)

51%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Bottled water

50%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Meat, beef & poultry processing

49%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Juice

47%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Egg producers (share of top 30)

41%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Processed meats

39%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Cheese

36%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Craft beer

33%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Sweet bakery

32%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Sugar processors

29%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Egg brands

23%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Refrigerated whole milk

23%market shareowned by 4 firms

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Frozen fruit

22%market shareowned by 4 firms

Supported by

11th Hour Project
About this content

Investigation shows scale of big food corporations’ market dominance and political power

Illustrations by Julia Louise Pereira

A handful of powerful companies control the majority market share of almost 80% of dozens of grocery items bought regularly by ordinary Americans, new analysis reveals.

A joint investigation by the Guardian and Food and Water Watch found that consumer choice is largely an illusion – despite supermarket shelves and fridges brimming with different brands.

In fact, a few powerful transnational companies dominate every link of the food supply chain: from seeds and fertilizers to slaughterhouses and supermarkets to cereals and beers.

The size, power and profits of these mega companies have expanded thanks to political lobbying and weak regulation which enabled a wave of unchecked mergers and acquisitions. This matters because the size and influence of these mega-companies enables them to largely dictate what America’s 2 million farmers grow and how much they are paid, as well as what consumers eat and how much our groceries cost.

It also means those who harvest, pack and sell us our food have the least power: at least half of the 10 lowest-paid jobs are in the food industry. Farms and meat processing plants are among the most dangerous and exploitative workplaces in the country.

Overall, only 15 cents of every dollar we spend in the supermarket goes to farmers. The rest goes to processing and marketing our food.

The Guardian and Food and Water Watch investigation into 61 popular grocery items reveals that the top companies control an average of 64% of sales.

We found that for 85% of the groceries analysed, four firms or fewer controlled more than 40% of market share. It’s widely agreed that consumers, farmers, small food companies and the planet lose out if the top four firms control 40% or more of total sales.

Our investigation is based on the analysis of market share data from thousands of supermarkets across the US.

“It’s a system designed to funnel money into the hands of corporate shareholders and executives while exploiting farmers and workers and deceiving consumers about choice, abundance and efficiency,” said Amanda Starbuck, policy analyst at Food & Water Watch.

The consolidation runs deep: four firms or fewer controlled at least 50% of the market for 79% of the groceries. For almost a third of shopping items, the top firms controlled at least 75% of the market share.

For instance, PepsiCo controls 88% of the dip market, as it owns five of the most popular brands including Tostitos, Lay’s and Fritos. Ninety-three per cent of the sodas we drink are owned by just three companies. The same goes for 73% of the breakfast cereals we eat – despite the shelves stacked with different boxes.

Beverages

Carbonated soft drinks
92.9%
Carbonated soft drinks
92.9%
Carbonated soft drinks
92.9%
Carbonated soft drinks
Carbonated soft drinks
Carbonated soft drinks
Coca-Cola 42.4%
PepsiCo 27.4%
Keurig Dr Pepper 23.1%

Refrigerated soy milk
81.2%
Refrigerated soy milk
81.2%
Refrigerated soy milk
81.2%
Refrigerated soy milk
81.2%
Refrigerated soy milk
Refrigerated soy milk
Refrigerated soy milk
Refrigerated soy milk
Danone 79.5%
Stremicks Heritage Foods 1.3%
HP Hood 0.4%
Prairie Farms 0.1%

Refrigerated almond milk
80.8%
Refridgerated almond milk
Refridgerated almond milk
Refridgerated almond milk
Refrigerated almond milk
Refridgerated almond milk
Refridgerated almond milk
Refridgerated almond milk
Blue Diamond Growers 39.7%
Danone 33.5%
Califia Farms 6.4%
Coca-Cola 1.2%

Beer
78.6%
Beer
78.6%
Beer
78.6%
Beer
78.6%
Beer
Beer
Beer
Beer
Anheuser-Busch InBev 41.6%
Molson Coors 24.3%
Constellation Brands 8.9%
Heineken N.V. 3.8%

Wine makers
68.9%
Wine makers
68.9%
Wine makers
68.9%
Wine makers
68.9%
Wine makers
Wine makers
Wine makers
Wine makers
E&J Gallo Winery 25.1%
The Wine Group 19%
Constellation Brands 17.9%
Trinchero Family Estates 6.9%

Coffee
68.3%
Coffee
68.3%
Coffee
68.3%
Coffee
68.3%
Coffee
Coffee
Coffee
Coffee
The J.M. Smucker Company 25.4%
Starbucks Corporation 16.1%
JAB Holding Company 15.1%
Kraft Heinz 11.7%

Tea – bags/loose
57.5%
Tea – bags/loose
57.5%
Tea – bags/loose
57.5%
Tea – bags/loose
57.5%
Tea – bags/loose
Tea – bags/loose
Tea – bags/loose
Tea – bags/loose
Unilever 21.2%
Bigelow Tea Company 16.6%
Hain Celestial Group 11.4%
Associated British Foods 8.3%

Ready to drink coconut milk
52.3%
Ready to drink coconut milk
52.3%
Ready to drink coconut milk
52.3%
Ready to drink coconut milk
52.3%
Ready to drink coconut milk
Ready to drink coconut milk
Ready to drink coconut milk
Ready to drink coconut milk
McCormick & Company 26%
Goya Foods 14.5%
Danone 5.9%
Andre Post Inc. 5.8%

Bottled water
49.8%
Bottled water
49.8%
Bottled water
49.8%
Bottled water
49.8%
Bottled water
Bottled water
Bottled water
Bottled water
Nestle 24.4%
Coca-Cola 12%
PepsiCo 9.4%
Talking Rain Beverage Company 4%

Juice
46.7%
Juice
46.7%
Juice
46.7%
Juice
46.7%
Juice
Juice
Juice
Juice
Coca-Cola 17.6%
PepsiCo 12.1%
Kraft Heinz 10.1%
Keurig Dr Pepper 6.9%

Craft beer
32.6%
Craft beer
32.6%
Craft beer
32.6%
Craft beer
32.6%
Craft beer
Craft beer
Craft beer
Craft beer
Molson Coors 13.1%
Boston Beer Company 7.9%
Sierra Nevada 6.4%
Kirin Holdings Co. 5.2%

Veggies, fruits and grains

Pasta (dry plain)
78.5%
Pasta (dry plain)
78.5%
Pasta (dry plain)
78.5%
Pasta (dry plain)
Pasta (dry plain)
Pasta (dry plain)
Barilla 33.2%
Ebro Foods 28.2%
TreeHouse Foods 17.1%

Bagels/bialys
77.2%
Bagels/bialys
77.2%
Bagels/bialys
77.2%
Bagels/bialys
77.2%
Bagels/bialys
Bagels/bialys
Bagels/bialys
Bagels/bialys
Grupo Bimbo 64.2%
Flowers Foods 8.6%
Franz Family Bakeries 2.8%
Campbell Soup Company 1.7%

Canned pineapple
74.6%
Canned pineapple
74.6%
Canned pineapple
74.6%
Canned pineapple
74.6%
Canned pineapple
Canned pineapple
Canned pineapple
Canned pineapple
Itochu 62.5%
Del Monte 8.6%
NTC Marketing Inc. 2.7%
Mitsui & Co. 0.7%

Breakfast cereals
72.8%
Breakfast cereals
72.8%
Breakfast cereals
72.8%
Breakfast cereals
Breakfast cereals
Breakfast cereals
General Mills 27.9%
Kellogg Company 26.8%
Post Holdings 18.1%

Fresh bread
60.8%
Fresh bread
60.8%
Fresh bread
60.8%
Fresh bread
60.8%
Fresh bread
Fresh bread
Fresh bread
Fresh bread
Grupo Bimbo 26.9%
Flowers Foods 24.6%
Campbell Soup Company 7.1%
Lewis Bakeries 2.1%

Canned green peas
59.8%
Canned green peas
59.8%
Canned green peas
59.8%
Canned green peas
59.8%
Canned green peas
Canned green peas
Canned green peas
Canned green peas
Del Monte 21.8%
B&G Foods 21.7%
Seneca Foods 8.2%
Goya Foods 8.2%

Canned potato/sweet potato
59%
Canned potato/sweet potato
59%
Canned potato/sweet potato
Canned potato/sweet potato
McCall Farms 46.8%
Del Monte 12.2%

Canned tomato
57.5%
Canned tomato
57.5%
Canned tomato
57.5%
Canned tomato
57.5%
Canned tomato
Canned tomato
Canned tomato
Canned tomato
Conagra 39.5%
Red Gold 8.1%
Del Monte 6.3%
Cento Fine Foods 3.6%

Bottled canned green beans
55.7%
Bottled canned green beans
55.7%
Bottled canned green beans
55.7%
Bottled canned green beans
55.7%
Bottled canned green beans
Bottled canned green beans
Bottled canned green beans
Bottled canned green beans
Del Monte 36.6%
Seneca Foods 8.3%
B&G Foods 6.9%
McCall Farms 3.8%

Canned corn
55.1%
Canned corn
55.1%
Canned corn
55.1%
Canned corn
55.1%
Canned corn
Canned corn
Canned corn
Canned corn
Del Monte 27.7%
B&G Foods 13.9%
Seneca Foods 8.5%
Juanita’s Foods 5%

Fresh cut salad
54.2%
Fresh cut salad
54.2%
Fresh cut salad
54.2%
Fresh cut salad
54.2%
Fresh cut salad
Fresh cut salad
Fresh cut salad
Fresh cut salad
Cultrale-Safra 21.7%
Itochu 14%
Taylor Fresh Foods 11.2%
Bonduelle 7.3%

Rice
52.2%
Rice
52.2%
Rice
52.2%
Rice
52.2%
Rice
Rice
Rice
Rice
Ebro Foods 22.6%
Mars 15.9%
Unilever 7.9%
PepsiCo 5.8%

Bottled/canned beans
Bottled/canned beans (no green beans)
50.7%
Bottled/canned beans (no green beans)
50.7%
Bottled/canned beans (no green beans)
50.7%
Bottled/canned beans
Bottled/canned beans (no green beans)
Bottled/canned beans (no green beans)
Bottled/canned beans (no green beans)
Bush Brothers & Company 23.5%
Goya Foods 13.9%
Vilore Foods Company 8.8%
Conagra 4.5%

Frozen fruit
21.5%
Frozen fruit
21.5%
Frozen fruit
21.5%
Frozen fruit
21.5%
Frozen fruit
Frozen fruit
Frozen fruit
Frozen fruit
Itochu 11.8%
Wyman’s 6.3%
Matosantos Commercial Corporation 1.7%
Goya Foods 1.6%

Prepared foods

Dry dinner mixes with meat
98.4%
Dry dinner mixes with meat
98.4%
Dry dinner mixes with meat
98.4%
Dry dinner mixes with meat
98.4%
Dry dinner mixes with meat
Dry dinner mixes with meat
Dry dinner mixes with meat
Dry dinner mixes with meat
Conagra 59.3%
General Mills 28.2%
Vigo Importing 9.4%
Brooklyn Bottling Co 1.5%

Single serve prepared sloppy sauce
93.9%
Single serve prepared sloppy sauce
93.9%
Single serve prepared sloppy sauce
93.9%
Single serve prepared sloppy sauce
93.9%
Single serve prepared sloppy sauce
Single serve prepared sloppy sauce
Single serve prepared sloppy sauce
Single serve prepared sloppy sauce
Conagra 91.6%
Del Monte 1.1%
Hormel Foods 0.8%
Conagra 0.4%

Single serve prepared pasta dishes
94.4%
Single serve prepared pasta dishes
94.4%
Single serve prepared pasta dishes
94.4%
Single serve prepared pasta dishes
94.4%
Single serve prepared pasta dishes
Single serve prepared pasta dishes
Single serve prepared pasta dishes
Single serve prepared pasta dishes
Conagra 63.7%
Campbell Soup Company 26.2%
Barilla 3.1%
General Mills 1.4%

Dry mac & cheese mixes
86.7%
Dry mac & cheese mixes
86.7%
Dry mac & cheese mixes
86.7%
Dry mac & cheese mixes
86.7%
Dry mac & cheese mixes
Dry mac & cheese mixes
Dry mac & cheese mixes
Dry mac & cheese mixes
Kraft Heinz 72.6%
General Mills 12.2%
Otsuka Pharmaceutical 1%
PepsiCo 0.8%

Baby formula (liquid concentrate)
84.6%
Baby formula (liquid concentrate)
84.6%
Baby formula (liquid concentrate)
84.6%
Baby formula (liquid concentrate)
Baby formula (liquid concentrate)
Baby formula (liquid concentrate)
Reckitt Benckiser 36.2%
Abbott Laboratories 36%
Nestle 12.4%

Baby food
81.7%
Baby food
81.7%
Baby food
81.7%
Baby food
Baby food
Baby food
Abbott Laboratories 31.4%
Reckitt Benckiser 26.3%
Nestle 24%

Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit
71.6%
Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit
71.6%
Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit
71.6%
Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit
71.6%
Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit
Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit
Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit
Hard/soft tortillas/taco kit
Gruma, S.A.B. de C.V. 48.1%
General Mills 11.5%
Ole Mexican Foods 9.9%
B&G Foods 2.1%

Prepared soup
69.7%
Prepared soup
69.7%
Prepared soup
69.7%
Prepared soup
69.7%
Prepared soup
Prepared soup
Prepared soup
Prepared soup
Campbell Soup Company 38.6%
General Mills 14.4%
Toyo Suisan Kaisha, Ltd. 11%
Unilever 5.7%

Single serve prepared salads
68.1%
Single serve prepared salads
68.1%
Single serve prepared salads
68.1%
Single serve prepared salads
68.1%
Single serve prepared salads
Single serve prepared salads
Single serve prepared salads
Single serve prepared salads
Seneca Foods 33%
The Fremont Company 16.1%
FCF Fishery Company 14%
Boscoli Foods 5.1%

Frozen pizza
66.2%
Frozen pizza
66.2%
Frozen pizza
66.2%
Frozen pizza
Frozen pizza
Frozen pizza
Nestle 40.2%
CJ CheilJedang 18.4%
General Mills 7.6%

Animal products

Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks
96.7%
Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks
96.7%
Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks
96.7%
Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks
96.7%
Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks
Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks
Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks
Single serve yogurt/yogurt drinks
MOM Group 71.9%
Hain Celestial Group 22%
The Ricky Joy Company 1.7%
OKF Corporation 1%

Canned tuna
85.4%
Canned tuna
85.4%
Canned tuna
85.4%
Canned tuna
85.4%
Canned tuna
Canned tuna
Canned tuna
Canned tuna
Dongwon Industries 45.6%
FCF Fishery Company 26.4%
Thai Union 12.3%
Wild Planet 1%

Frozen meat substitute
76.1%
Frozen meat substitute
76.1%
Frozen meat substitute
76.1%
Frozen meat substitute
76.1%
Frozen meat substitute
Frozen meat substitute
Frozen meat substitute
Frozen meat substitute
Kellogg Company 54%
Maple Leaf Foods 8.1%
Conagra 7.9%
Kraft Heinz 6.1%

Processed/imitation cheese slices
71.1%
Processed/imitation cheese slices
71.1%
Processed/imitation cheese slices
71.1%
Processed/imitation cheese slices
71.1%
Processed/imitation cheese slices
Processed/imitation cheese slices
Processed/imitation cheese slices
Processed/imitation cheese slices
Kraft Heinz 64.9%
Dairy Farmers of America 3.7%
Land O’Lakes 1.4%
Boar’s Head 1.2%

Canned salmon
66.6%
Canned salmon
66.6%
Canned salmon
66.6%
Canned salmon
66.6%
Canned salmon
Canned salmon
Canned salmon
Canned salmon
Thai Union 24.1%
Peter Pan Seafoods 17.3%
FCF Fishery Company 16.3%
Trident Seafoods 8.9%

Turkey producers (pounds processed)
57.8%
Turkey producers (pounds processed)
57.8%
Turkey producers (pounds processed)
57.8%
Turkey producers (pounds processed)
57.8%
Turkey producers (pounds processed)
Turkey producers (pounds processed)
Turkey producers (pounds processed)
Turkey producers (pounds processed)
Seaboard Corporation and Maxwell Farms 18.8%
Hormel Foods 16.8%
Cargill 13.9%
Farbest Foods 8.3%

Bacon
52%
Bacon
52%
Bacon
52%
Bacon
52%
Bacon
Bacon
Bacon
Bacon
Kraft Heinz 18.8%
WH Group 14.5%
Hormel Foods 10.7%
Tyson Foods 8.1%

Meat, beef & poultry processing
48.8%
Meat, beef & poultry processing
48.8%
Meat, beef & poultry processing
48.8%
Meat, beef & poultry processing
48.8%
Meat, beef & poultry processing
Meat, beef & poultry processing
Meat, beef & poultry processing
Meat, beef & poultry processing
JBS SA 18.7%
Tyson Foods 15.4%
Cargill 9%
WH Group 5.7%

Egg producers*
41.3%
Egg producers*
41.3%
Egg producers*
41.3%
Egg producers*
41.3%
Egg producers*
Egg producers*
Egg producers*
Egg producers*
Cal-Maine 15.1%
Rose Acre Farms 10.1%
Versova 9.8%
Hillandale Farms 6.3%

Processed meats
39.1%
Processed meats
39.1%
Processed meats
39.1%
Processed meats
39.1%
Processed meats
Processed meats
Processed meats
Processed meats
Tyson Foods 16.1%
Kraft Heinz 9.6%
Hormel Foods 6.7%
WH Group 6.7%

Cheese
36%
Cheese
36%
Cheese
36%
Cheese
36%
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Cheese
Kraft Heinz 25.1%
Sargento Foods 5.8%
Saputo Cheese USA 2.8%
BEL SA 2.3%

Egg brands
23.3%
Egg brands
23.3%
Egg brands
23.3%
Egg brands
23.3%
Egg brands
Egg brands
Egg brands
Egg brands
Cal-Maine 18.7%
Pete & Gerry’s 3.1%
Sauder’s Eggs 0.7%
Dutch Farms 0.7%

Refrigerated whole milk
22.5%
Refrigerated whole milk
22.5%
Refrigerated whole milk
22.5%
Refrigerated whole milk
22.5%
Refrigerated whole milk
Refrigerated whole milk
Refrigerated whole milk
Refrigerated whole milk
Dairy Farmers of America 8.9%
Danone 6.2%
HP Hood 4.9%
Capital Peak Partners 2.5%

*Share of the top 30 producers

Snacks and condiments

Dip
90.7%
Dip
90.7%
Dip
90.7%
Dip
90.7%
Dip
Dip
Dip
Dip
PepsiCo 87.5%
Utz 1.6%
Kraft Heinz 0.9%
Campbell Soup Company 0.7%

Popcorn, microwave
86.5%
Popcorn, microwave
86.5%
Popcorn, microwave
86.5%
Popcorn, microwave
86.5%
Popcorn, microwave
Popcorn, microwave
Popcorn, microwave
Popcorn, microwave
Conagra 43.6%
Campbell Soup Company 27%
Weaver Popcorn Company 10%
American Pop Corn Company 5.9%

Mayonnaise
82.8%
Mayonnaise
82.8%
Mayonnaise
82.8%
Mayonnaise
Mayonnaise
Mayonnaise
Unilever 50.7%
Kraft Heinz 30.4%
McCormick & Company 1.7%

Chocolate confectionary
80.3%
Chocolate confectionary
80.3%
Chocolate confectionary
80.3%
Chocolate confectionary
Chocolate confectionary
Chocolate confectionary
Hershey Company 41.5%
Mars 27.4%
Lindt & Sprungli AG 11.4%

Yogurt
74.5%
Yogurt
74.5%
Yogurt
74.5%
Yogurt
74.5%
Yogurt
Yogurt
Yogurt
Yogurt
Danone 33%
Chobani Global Holdings 18.4%
General Mills 17.3%
Groupe Lactalis 5.8%

Snack bars
66.4%
Snack bars
66.4%
Snack bars
66.4%
Snack bars
66.4%
Snack bars
Snack bars
Snack bars
Snack bars
General Mills 26.7%
Kellogg Company 17.2%
Simply Good Foods 12%
Mars 10.5%

Sour cream
63.9%
Sour cream
63.9%
Sour cream
63.9%
Sour cream
63.9%
Sour cream
Sour cream
Sour cream
Sour cream
Daisy 51.9%
Kraft Heinz 8.3%
Dairy Farmers of America 2.9%
HP Hood 0.8%

Doughnuts
61.5%
Doughnuts
61.5%
Doughnuts
61.5%
Doughnuts
61.5%
Doughnuts
Doughnuts
Doughnuts
Doughnuts
Hostess Brands 20.6%
Grupo Bimbo 18.1%
JAB Holding Company 11.6%
McKee Foods 11.2%

Table sauces
53.1%
Table sauces
53.1%
Table sauces
53.1%
Table sauces
53.1%
Table sauces
Table sauces
Table sauces
Table sauces
Kraft Heinz 25.4%
Unilever 11.1%
Ken’s Foods 8.3%
Clorox 8.3%

Biscuits (cookies & crackers)
60.9%
Biscuits (cookies & crackers)
60.9%
Biscuits (cookies & crackers)
60.9%
Biscuits (cookies & crackers)
60.9%
Biscuits (cookies & crackers)
Biscuits (cookies & crackers)
Biscuits (cookies & crackers)
Biscuits (cookies & crackers)
Mondelez International 39.8%
Kellogg Company 7.6%
Campbell Soup Company 6.9%
McKee Foods 6.6%

Sugar processors
28.9%
Sugar processors
28.9%
Sugar processors
28.9%
Sugar processors
28.9%
Sugar processors
Sugar processors
Sugar processors
Sugar processors
American Crystal Sugar Company 11%
Snake River Sugar Company 9.8%
Louis Dreyfus Company 4.5%
Western Sugar Cooperative 3.6%

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Bloomberg/Getty Images

Grupo Bimbo owns 64% of the bagel and bialy market, which includes several well known brands like Sara Lee and Thomas’.

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

A whopping 93% of the sodas Americans drink are owned by just three companies.

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Lauri Patterson/Getty Images

Conagra owns the huge majority of prepared foods, including sloppy joe sauce and dinner mixes.

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

PepsiCo owns five of the most popular dip brands for a total of 88% of the market.

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Richard Levine/Corbis News/Getty Images

85% of the canned tuna we eat is owned by just four companies.

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Big food is getting bigger

For shoppers, it might seem like choices galore at the store, but most of our favorite brands are actually owned by a handful of food giants, including Kraft Heinz, General Mills, Conagra, Unilever and Delmonte.

Kraft Heinz, the result of a $63bn mega-merger in 2015, which was backed by Warren Buffett and a Brazilian private equity firm, appears 12 times in the top 4 firms for groceries, with products ranging from bacon, sour cream and coffee to frozen meat substitutes and fruit juice.

The big firms are helped by so-called category captains who represent leading brands or manufacturers and work with major retailers to decide which products get prominent spots on our supermarket shelves. And then there’s the slotting fees – payments by big-brand manufacturers for eye-catching product placement. This makes it very hard for new independent brands to get a break. And when they do get a tiny foothold, it often doesn’t last.

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A man in a Los Angeles Whole Foods shopping for tortillas. Photograph: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For example, while hipsters and old-school beer enthusiasts have contributed to a boom in local craft beers, the Belgian company Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired 17 formerly independent craft breweries between 2011 and 2020. It might not be clear to consumers from the labels, but the company owns more than 600 brands, including the mainstream favorites Budweiser, Michelob and Beck’s.

Another source of confusion is private labels – supermarkets’ own brands, of which little is known about the producer – which appeared in the top four of 77% of the groceries we looked at. For frozen fruits like the mixed berries used for smoothies and desserts, private labels account for 66% of the market share, as well as 56% of refrigerated whole milk and 54% of eggs sales.

General Mills
Kellogg
Post

imageimage

Which of these cereals do you think is owned by one of the four huge companies that dominate this market?

Scroll down for the answer

Food giants General Mills, Kellogg and Post own all but one of these brands.

Millions spent on lobbying politicians

The economic power of the corporations has contributed to their growing political power, which in turn has led to laws that put profits before food and worker safety, consumer rights and sustainability.

During the 2020 election cycle, the food industry spent $175m on political contributions, including lobbying by PACs and individuals and other efforts.

The money came from every part of the food chain, including dairy, eggs, poultry, meat processing, farm bureaus, sugar cane, crop production and supermarkets.

About two-thirds went to Republicans.

The 2020 total compares to just $29m spent during the 1992 election cycle, which means lobbying by the food industry has increased by sixfold in less than three decades as consolidation across the supply chain has boomed.

Supermarket chains dominate

Less competition among agribusinesses means higher prices and fewer choices for consumers – including where they can shop for food.

Until the 1990s, most people shopped in local or regional grocery stores. Now, just four companies – Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Ahold Delhaize – control 65% of the retail market.

“Corporate consolidation can drive up food prices and reduce access to food,” said Starbuck. “Supermarket mergers drive out smaller, mom-and-pop grocers and regional chains. We have roughly one-third fewer grocery stores today than we did 25 years ago, according to the US census bureau.”

As countless mom-and-pop stores struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic lockdowns, revenue for Walmart US hit $341bn – almost 3% higher than the previous year.

Grocery chains and superstores are also the main beneficiaries of government aid for Americans struggling to feed their families. In 2020, 82% of all food stamps were spent in supermarkets and superstores like Krogers, Walmart, Costco and Sam’s Club, which means the taxpayer contributed $64bn to their revenue.

The meat market – and sticky commodity prices

A spate of mega-mergers means that meatpacking plants are now controlled by just a handful of multinationals including Tyson, JBS, Cargill and Smithfield (now owned by the Chinese multinational WH Group). Proponents of capitalism claim mergers and acquisitions generate efficiencies that cut costs for farmers and benefit consumers by keeping prices down. But the tight grip these companies have over the industry means farmers have little choice about whom they sell to and how their animals are raised.

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Pigs stand in a pen at a farm in Ayden, North Carolina. Photograph: Callaghan O’Hare/Bloomberg

Consumers pay more while profits for mega meat processors are booming: in 2020, the Brazilian firm JBS reported $51bn in revenue – a 32% rise compared with the previous year. China is driving much of the company’s growth, and JBS accounted for 50% of beef exports from the US last year. The proportion of arable land dedicated to producing meat is expanding but this is largely to feed consumers overseas. Per capita meat production flatlined in the US between 2005 and 2020, while the value of exports almost doubled.

Consumers are also hurt by so-called sticky prices. Commodity prices can rise due to shortages caused by unexpected events such as floods or drought that disrupt the supply chain – which happened at the start of the pandemic. When this happens, supermarkets are quick to increase prices to ensure profit margins remain intact, but when commodities go down, consumer prices are often much slower to decrease.

Beef
Pork
0
20
40
60
80%

368185344670

1980
1995
2018
1980
1995
2018

0
20
40
60
80
$100bn

109.751.538.27.3

Cargill
JBS
Tyson
National Beef
0
2
4
6
$8 per pound
1980
1988
1996
2004
2012
2019
0
1
2
3
4
$5 per pound
1980
1988
1996
2004
2012
2019

Forty years ago, about a third of the beef and pork processing industry was controlled by the top four firms.

After a spate of mega-mergers, more than 80% of beef processing and 70% of pork processing is controlled by four multinational giants.

In 2017, these top firms had a combined annual revenue of $207bn.

Meanwhile, farmers and consumers lost out.

In the past forty years, these huge corporations have been paying farmers less and less for beef – and selling it to consumers at increasing prices.

These huge companies have also been paying farmers less for pork, while selling it at the same price for the past 30 years.

Farmers squeezed … and desperate

America’s farmers have become increasingly dependent on government aid.

Farmers received $424.4bn in subsidies between 1995 and 2020, of which 49% were for just three crops: corn, wheat and soybeans, according to the Environmental Working Group. Corn subsidies are the largest by a long way – $116.6bn – accounting for 27% of the total. Very little corn grown in the US is eaten these days. Instead, more than 99% goes into animal feed, additives like corn syrup used in sugary junk food and, increasingly, ethanol, which produces toxic air pollutants when burned with gasoline.

It’s a cruel paradox, according to some campaigners, as subsidies incentivise farmers to grow just a handful of cash crops, a practice that floods the market, depresses prices and keeps them hooked on government aid.

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A farmer preparing a field for spring planting in Prairie Grove, Illinois. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

Commodity prices peaked in mid-2012 and plunged by about 50% by the end of 2019.

This is good news for big corporations like meat processors, as it reduces costs, but bad for many farmers: total farm debt has reached levels not seen since the 1980s farm crisis.

Advocates say that a toxic mix of financial woes, climate chaos and trade wars have contributed to a mental health crisis among farmers. At least 450 farmers died by suicide across nine midwestern states between 2014 to 2018, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Calls to a crisis hotline operated by Farm Aid, a non-profit agency trying to help farmers keep their land, almost doubled over the same period. In 2020, 552 farmers filed for bankruptcy – 7% fewer than the previous year, as commodity prices and government aid increased during the pandemic, but still the third-highest figure over the last decade.

“The economic power of these corporations enables them to wield huge political influence, so we have a system in which farmers are on a treadmill just trying to stay afloat. Basically there’s a handful of individuals in the world, mostly white men, who make money by dictating who farms, what gets farmed and who gets to eat. Consumer choice is an illusion; the transnationals control everything in this extractive agricultural model,” said Joe Maxwell, president of Family Farm Action.

Less than a third of farms – mostly big ones – benefit from USDA subsidies in part because the system has a long history of descrimination against farmers of color and small farms without the time, resources or expertise to dedicate to online applications.

Food industry workers: low pay, high hazards

At least half of the 10 lowest-paid jobs in the US are in the food industry, and they rely disproportionately on federal benefits. Walmart and McDonald’s are among the top employers of beneficiaries of food stamps and Medicaid, according to a 2020 study by a non-partisan government watchdog.

Even before the pandemic, farms were among the most dangerous workplaces in the country, where low paid workers have little protection from long hours, repetitive strain injuries, exposures to pesticides, dangerous machinery, extreme heat and animal waste. Between 50% and 75% of the country’s 2.5 million farmworkers are undocumented migrants who have few labor rights and limited access to occupational healthcare.

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Workers at a pork processing plant in Missouri trim fat from pork. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Covid exposed and exacerbated the risks faced by frontline food workers, especially those working in meatpacking plants. As of last week, at least 58,898 meatpacking plant workers had tested positive for Covid, according to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (Fern), and many of the outbreaks led to community spread in rural areas. This is a massive undercount as the majority of states do not collect or share the data, nor do the big companies.

“The meatpacking industry is much more dangerous now than in the 1990s, and the biggest factors are consolidation and cutting corners of worker safety,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project.

Environmental impacts

About half of the planet’s land and 70% of freshwater withdrawals are for farming, which is increasingly industrialized.

Industrial agriculture is focussed on extracting maximum profits for minimum costs – an exploitative model with grave consequences for animal welfare, water, land and global heating.

Agriculture is responsible for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, making food production a major contributor to the climate crisis. Across the board, the carbon footprint for animal-based foods – beef, lamb, chicken, cheese – is higher than for plant based food, which is mostly due to the consequences of deforestation to create space to grow feed crops, fertilizer used for these crops and methane emissions.

Human sewage produced in the New York metro area in 2017

27bn lbs

Animal waste produced in factory farms in 2017

884bn lbs

Guardian graphic. Source: Food and Water Watch

Despite the community, environmental and economic benefits of supporting local sustainable producers, transporting food is a very small contributor to greenhouse gases: it’s really what you eat, not where it comes, from that’s key to reducing your dietary carbon footprint.

Here in the US, there were 1.6bn animals living on 25,000 factory farms in 2017 – a 14% rise in just five years. Together, these animals produced about 885bn pounds of manure annually – equivalent to the human sewage generated by residents of 30 New York Cities.

Incentivising farmers to grow the same crops has reduced the productivity of some of the country’s most fertile lands, as monocropping depletes soil of nutrients and can lead to significant erosion. The practice requires synthetic fertilizers to compensate for the lost nutrients, and pesticides to combat fungi and insect predators that thrive in these conditions. Indigenous and subsistence farmers have always rotated multiple crops because it’s the best way of ensuring healthy soil and good yields.

Agricultural runoff is now responsible for 80% of excessive nutrients in our freshwater and oceans, which cause dense growth of plant life like algae that block oxygen from reaching fish and other animals.

In 2019, agriculture and aquaculture were identified as a threat to 24,000 of the almost 28,000 species threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List.

What can be done?

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon’s agriculture secretary told farmers to “get big or get out”.

This investigation has examined the far-reaching consequences of government support – political and economic – for big corporations that now dominate every part of the food chain.

Last week Joe Biden signed an executive order to tackle the rampant concentration across the US economy – including food and farming. Biden called on government agencies to enforce existing antitrust laws and consider rolling back recent mega-mergers which boosted profits and power for a handful of corporations while hurting the rest of us. The order specifically directs the USDA to take swift action to protect farmers including by making it easier for them to sue meat processors for alleged abuses.

But the problems in the current system run deep.

“From farm to fork, America’s food system has been rooted in the exploitation of women, Native Americans and people of color. This is at the heart of capitalist food politics – big corporations taking as much as they can and paying as little as possible for it,” said Raj Patel, academic and author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.

In addition to executive actions, which could be overturned by the next president, such deep-rooted injustices need sweeping reforms by Congress. But bills banning new mega-mergers and factory farms currently lack bipartisan support, despite public opinion supporting them.

It’s time to support small-scale regenerative farmers, regional food hubs and grocery coops, according to Starbuck. “Alternatives already exist. We just need to boost public funding and resources to help sustainable, affordable, more equitable food systems take root.”

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 and online chat is also available. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected] In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

How we did the research

The Guardian and Food and Water Watch selected a range of grocery categories to reflect everyday products Americans commonly buy.

The sales information comes from retail scanner data compiled by the market research firm IRI, a Chicago-based international company. Data obtained directly from IRI covers the majority of 2020; we also used IRI data published by Mintel Group reports (covering 2019) and the Market Share Reporter (covering 2017).

We calculated the ratio of sales of the top four – or fewer – companies in each food category compared with the rest. This calculation is a common yardstick to measure industry concentration. Brands and subsidiaries (including all mergers/acquisitions completed by June 2021) appear in the market share of their parent companies.

Markets where the top four companies account for more than 40% of sales are generally considered to be consolidated; those exceeding 60% are tight oligopolies or monopolies.

For the meat, beef and poultry processing categories, we used Ibis World’s estimate of total revenue in 2021.

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