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  Farmwashing: Big Food’s Branding Woes...Again   Farmwashing: Big Food’s Branding Woes...Again  Mya Frazier  
Farmwashing: Big Food’s Branding Woes...Again A local dairy farmer walks up and down the line, offering cups of fresh Snowville Creamery milk (“only a day old”) to moviegoers waiting to enter the sold-out screening of Food, Inc., the latest anti-big-food documentary that takes aim at the industrialized food system, especially giant food processing brands like Tyson and Perdue.

Inside is a buffet of fresh, locally grown organic vegetables and salad provided by the local chapter of Slow Food, a group with 200 chapters nationwide and the ambitious mission “to create dramatic and lasting change in the food system.”

Folding tables overflow with pamphlets and flyers touting organic honey, dairy and produce. A Whole Foods representative dressed in a store apron passes out fliers touting the chain’s “Week of Growing Home,” including an in-store meet and greet with Ohio farmers. Moviegoers buy buckets of organically grown popcorn. A conversation about the ethics of the vegan lifestyle is overheard. This isn’t a neighborhood megaplex scene with moviegoers downing cola and popcorn coated with artificial “butter topping.”

But these moviegoers don’t represent mainstream America, and Food, Inc. certainly isn’t the next Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, despite the apparent best intentions of director Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. isn’t exactly the 21st-century movie version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

In fact, cinematically, Food, Inc. is a rather slow-going and, at times, didactic screed against big-brand food producers. Although it appears to spare no brand, the abstract, fuzzy idea of “big food” winds up spreading the blame around enough to prevent any single brand from ending up the ultimate scapegoat, although the US$ 10 billion seed company Monsanto gets a thorough roasting (made all the worse by its refusal to talk to the filmmaker).

Yet no well-known consumer brand gets slammed repeatedly enough—not the case with McDonald’s in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me. It’s more a matter of guilt by association, especially for processed food brands that occupy the so-called “center store.” In a brief interlude, a series of food logos, including Twinkies, Heinz, Skippy, Peter Pan, Lucky Charms, Doritos and even Duracell batteries, spin hypnotically on screen, singled out for being produced via the “rearrangement of corn.”

Just as the threat of greenwashing ushered in a new era of carefully considered branding messages by consumer brands like Walmart and Coca-Cola, this new emerging critique of our industrialized food system is likely to create the need for more carefully crafted and tuned messages among food brands.

Indeed, the most obvious lesson of the movie is one for the logo designers of the branding world: It’s time to rethink the archetypal logo of the red barn and pastoral farm scene.

“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000, but the image that’s used to sell the food…you go into the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers. The picket fence and the silo and the 1930s farmhouse and the green grass. The reality is…it’s not a farm, it’s a factory. That meat is being processed by huge multi-national corporations that have very little to do with ranches and farmers,” argues Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Call it farmwashing. Despite the rather arguable point that most consumers—especially during a recession—will buy what’s practical and not what is simply ethical, the pendulum is swinging toward transparency and away from what’s always been advertising’s stock and trade: forged imagery and obfuscation.

An increasingly broader audience wants to know what it’s buying, and the Internet makes it possible to find out. And films like Food, Inc. lay it out. Big food is selling rearranged corn. And tons of it.

“All those snack food calories are the ones that come from the commodity crops, from the wheat, from the corn, and from the soybeans. By making those calories really cheap, it’s one of the reasons that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level,” Pollan adds.

Look no further than the logo of Hillshire Farm, a brand owned by food giant and master marketer Sara Lee. It’s almost exactly as Pollan describes: a red silo, green grass, a small barn. Yet all those kielbasa, hot dogs and smoked sausage aren’t sourced in some kind of idyllic pastoral world, and all those pigs and cows get fattened up not on grass…but corn.

Indeed, the image that sticks from the film isn’t idyllic. Instead it’s the ugly, industrialized farms shown in towns like McLean County, Kentucky, where row upon row of single-level aluminum-sided buildings hold pigs and cows with barely enough room to stand—let alone walk through green pastures and graze—that get fattened up with antibiotics and corn.

“You look at the labels and you see farmer this, farmer that. It’s really just three or four companies that are controlling the meat. We’ve never had food companies this big and this powerful in our history,” decries Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation.

Indeed, Perdue’s website has a sun-soaked rendering of a farm scene—a white farmhouse overlooking green pastures.

Meat processing giants like Tyson and Perdue are vilified in the film. There are plenty of scenes of chicken farms and dead carcasses and birds so fat they can’t even walk without falling over. Yet despite the fact that Perdue and Tyson sell a good bulk of their food through Walmart, the nation’s number-one grocery retailer, Walmart ends up being portrayed as relatively clean—in part because, unlike other brands (including Tyson and Perdue), Walmart talked.

In a memorable scene, Walmart executives pile out of a white van dressed casually in jeans to visit organic farmer Amanda Ellis Thurber. There’s an oddly uncomfortable moment when she shakes the trio of outstretched hands and with full-mouthed smile unabashedly explains, “You know, we don’t go to Walmart. We’ve never been there. Isn’t that amazing? We just sort of boycotted it a long time ago and kept riding that boat.”

The Walmart executives look bewildered, but manage a smile. The patience pays off, and a few scenes later the chain’s chief dairy purchaser, Tony Airoso, even touts the retailer’s decision to no longer sell milk with growth hormones: “If it’s clear the customer wants it, it’s pretty easy to get behind it.”

Food, Inc. will undoubtedly reach the proverbial choir of organic and slow-food adherents, but it lacks the narrative flair and audience-luring gimmicks of Spurlock’s Super Size Me. But that doesn’t mean big brands shouldn’t be paying attention to the ethical desires of this well-informed, feisty and increasingly vocal consumer segment.

In our age of consumer control and digital chaos, when a small consumer segment can light a veritable firestorm of protest online, it’s time for big brands to pay attention to every gripe and appraisal.

Entire new companies and brands have been built by listening intently to a small but vocal consumer segment agitating for change, either for fresh design in a staid category (e.g., Method in soap) or an ethical innovation in a category lacking an apparent conscious (e.g., Whole Foods in the once seemingly unchangeable grocery industry). Walmart, after all, sells more organic produce today than any retailer in the world, albeit critics argue the term “organic” is losing its teeth.

Consumer ethics constantly morph and shift, but they certainly don’t go backwards, as the green movement has shown. Listen up, brands.     



Mya Frazier is freelance business journalist. She can be reached at

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Farmwashing: Big Food’s Branding Woes...Again
 Good work. Now will you please find out and report on why milk prices are so high? That's an unjust situation. 
Kate Fisher - August 17, 2009
 farm-washing is only part of the story. As a nutritional scientist with over 25 years research into Australian Aboriginal wild foods, it is apparent that modern foods are nutritionally dilute in comparison to the foods with which we evolved. Have a look at for a more in depth discussion but essentially, when we breed for sweetness, tenderness and size we dilute out the beneficial nutrients in our fruits, vegetables and meats. The result is premature ageing, obesity, diabetes, CVD and senile dementia etc - all diseases of civilization. Add to this the fact that we now rely on an ever-diminishing number of foods (wheat and corn reign supreme) compared to traditional hunter gatherers who gained the benefits from 10 times the number of foods annually than we do today. Quality and range was up then and down now and falling.Try the Juice and see the difference. Energy goes up, symptoms go down (just an observation, we make no claims, of course). Magic! 
Vic Cherikoff, Managing Director, Cherikoff Bioactives - August 18, 2009
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