A Review of Eat Your Heart Out: Food Profiteering in America

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A Review of Eat Your Heart Out: Food Profiteering in America

by Cary Fowler

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 4, July-August 1977, p. 18–19
Eat Your Heart Out: Food Profiteering in America by Jim Hightower (Crown Publishers, 1975). 294 pp. $8.95. 

A few years back, a number of public interest groups in Washington got together to launch a “Food Action Campaign” aimed at alerting citizens to the concentrated power of the food industry and its evils. The Campaign called on a few wellknown people with particular credibility to travel around the country spreading information about the impact of the modern, monopolistic corporation—a Del Monte, for example. Bess Myerson had just resigned as New York City’s consumer affairs director. The group decided to ask her to join them. The request went through her staff. Days passed. Finally the reply came that she would be unable to help in the campaign because (1) she didn’t want to get involved in such projects at the time, and (2) she had never met anyone named “Adelle Monte.” “With that,” Hightower notes, “the Food Action Campaign realized that it had a long way to go to make people aware of corporate food power. Consumers were asleep at the switch.” 

—Hightower’s book is about “food profiteering in America”—no more, no less. It poses the question: If the free-enterprise system is working, why all the junk food and declining nutritional standards, why widespread hunger, why exorbitant profits and the insulting ads, why the decline of the family farmer? The answer in a word, is oligopoly, the term Hightower most often uses to describe the shared monopoly which dominates the food industry.

Fifty corporations now account for about 60 percent of total food manufacturing assets. Certain food items are under the complete control of a single corporation. Other food lines are dominated by just three or four huge conglomerates who no longer compete against each other: it’s more profitable to gouge you than a corporate rival. United Brands and Del Monte, for instance, control 85 percent of the North American banana market. Four corporations (including General Mills which owns the game, “Monopoly”) account for over 90 percent of the breakfast food sales. Solid oligopolies (the four largest corporations) control over 50 percent of the market, half of this country’s food industry. 

Such “competition” results in comfortable profit margins. A 1966 Federal Trade Commission study found a 7.5 percent average net profit for corporations operating in the competitive sectors of the food industry. Those operating in the oligopolistic enclaves banked 14.2 percent. The giant food corporations solidify their positions with tons of advertising hype. They create markets for their goods, and their goods sell. Precious supermarket shelf space is allotted not to the product that represents sensible eating or good nutrition, but to the product that moves fast. Sales and profit, not nutrition, determine shelf space … and America’s dinner. If people demand nutrition, that’s extra. (Total cereal is nothing more than Wheaties with a penny’s worth of vitamins added, but it costs a quarter more.) 

Increasingly, this unbridled power is reaching back to the farms, where once-independent farmers are becoming hired hands for the corporations or emigrants to the cities. Approximately 78 percent of the vegetables now processed by the likes of Del Monte, Tenneco and Coke are grown under contract. The farmer agrees to produce a certain crop in a certain way according to given specifications for a stated price. If a potato farmer doesn’t like Boeing’s contract, for instance, he or she can look forward to a long winter of potato eating, as Hightower says, because often only one corporation will buy the produce. In 1974 A&P was found guilty of conspiring to fix prices paid to cattlemen. Safeway and Kroger were also named as defendants but had the sense to settle out of court. The federal jury found that the supermarket chains had carved out regions in which they had agreed not to compete with each other in buying fresh meat. Many sellers- one buyer. 

This is power unaffected by the inefficiencies of giantism. The corporations are notoriously inefficient at everything but turning a profit. The story’s the same down on the farm. Every USDA study to date has found that the “family” farm is more efficient than the big corporate farm. Nevertheless, the government regularly rewards the corporate growers, processors, and sellers at the expense of the private citizen. Hightower likes to say that when the small farmers drive up to Washington, they’re ignored; when big business drives up, they get curb service. 

One of the most interesting, though not most significant, areas of government aid to big business involves research. Federally financed research is a thinly disguised subsidy for the food corporations. When Hershey decided to decrease the size of its chocolate bar, a University of California research department bred a small almond because the regular sized almond made Hershey’s bar look too small. 

The University of Georgia has been at work on a featherless chicken so the big processors won’t have to waste money plucking them. And then there’s the famous hard tomato, star of Hightower’s last book, Hard Times, Hard Tomatoes. Hard enough to pick mechanically, it has no (recognizable) tomato taste. Even if it’s not ripe, it’s red—thanks to chemicals and “degreening rooms.” And now that the University of California has isolated 70 chemicals which cause tomato taste, it’s only a matter of time before they inject the flavor back in. 

Monopoly power teams up with government power to spell trouble for us non-aligned citizens in still other ways. For example, ITT and Tasty Baking Company got the USDA to redefine “breakfast” for the purpose of the school meal programs to include “fortified baked product with cream filling.” ITT’s Hostess subsidiary then broke into the school breakfast and lunch programs with “Astrofood,” a vitamin “enriched,” sugar-filled cake developed under a grant from the federal government. Youngsters in Memphis, Little Rock, Atlanta and other cities can tell you what it’s like. Tasty’s research department came up with “Superkake,” and Tasty’s sales of cakes and pies were off to a 70-percent increase. With the government’s help these two corporations are turning a handsome profit and children are learning that breakfast is sugar and a brand name. In response to this trend, one Rutgers University technologist, demonstrating a dubious concern for nutrition, suggested we infuse corn and peas with sugar. “Then,” he told the New York Times, “children will eat them like peanuts.” No wonder American diets are less nutritious today than they were in 1955. Consumption of fruits, vegetables, milk, cheese and cereals has declined. They have been replaced by the rising consumption of soft drinks, candy, ice cream, potato chips and cookies. 

When it comes time to talk about solutions to the problems of corporate power in the kitchen, Eat Your Heart Out slows down and sputters a bit. I believe the book’s weakness in offering solutions stems from faults in its analysis of the problem. The problem, as Hightower sees it, is lack of competition. The answer then is to assist the small farmers in their fight for survival while trimming back the big corporations with enforcement of antitrust laws. Both courses of action are to be applauded, but both should be recognized as stop-gap measures. Like kudzu, corporations are not easily cut down. And like the pernicious weed, once cut down it’s only a matter of time before they come back with a vengeance.

Serious regulation of corporations’ profit-making activities is not possible within the existing economic system. Nor is it likely given our present social and political systems (which we can work to change). Unrestrained growth and rising profits are necessary to every corporation’s existence and well-being. But if the corporate well-being is antithetical to our own then the question becomes not whether or how to regulate the corporations but how to wrest control of our food-producing systems from this special interest group. If all people are to be adequately fed in this country, if there is such a thing as a “right to food,” then we as citizens must gain control over the food we eat. We must have the power to decide what is produced, how it is produced and who produces it.

Finally, while Eat Your Heart Out is the best book around about the domestic activities of the food industry giants, it completely ignores the overseas activities of these corporations—why these corporations are swarming over foreign lands, what they are doing there and how it affects the local people and ourselves. In three decades multinational agribusiness conglomerates transformed an essentially regional “food system” into a national and international food system. Now poor people in the Third World compete in the marketplace with rich elites in every country including their own. Will American or British agribusiness in Kenya find it more profitable to grow food for Kenyans or to grow bixa, a red dye used in lipstick? It is the international character of the food system that must be examined if we are to understand “our own” food system, not to mention the existence of and causes behind “world hunger.”

This review originally appeared in Southern Exposure, a quarterly publication of the Institute for Southern Studies. Subscriptions are $8 a year, and their address is P.O. Box 230, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514. 

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