How Big Food Takes Advantage of the Poor in Emerging Markets

Faced with demands to grow profits, some of the biggest food corporations are finding ways to market processed food in developing countries.

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Publicly traded companies cannot simply make a profit. They must grow profits and report growth to Wall Street every 90 days. This requirement is tough on all corporations, but especially tough on those selling food. People can only eat so much.

To expand sales, food companies desperately seek new markets. Last week, The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal described how food corporations are marketing processed foods to the poorest inhabitants of developing countries.

According to The Guardian,

Nestlé is using a floating supermarket to take its products to remote communities in the Amazon. Unilever has a small army of door-to-door vendors selling to low-income villages in India and west and east Africa. The brewer SABMiller has developed cheap beers in some African countries as part of a "price ladder" to its premium lager brands, and, as a leading Coca-Cola bottler and distributor, is aiming to double fizzy drinks sales in South African townships.

Last year 39 percent of acquisition deals by consumer goods companies were in emerging markets, compared with just one percent in 2008, according to the Grocer's OC&C Global 50 league table.

The Wall Street Journal follows a salesman in South Africa who is "digging for his gold" in poor neighborhoods:

While Nestlé's usual sales staff focus on filling shelves of big supermarkets, Mr. Mugwambane and 80 other salespeople like him hunt for tiny shops across South Africa that will buy such Nestlé products as baby food and nondairy creamers, often in single-serving packages that appeal to Africa's price-sensitive customers.

...Nestlé says it expects 45 percent of its sales to come from emerging markets by 2020, up from roughly 30 percent now.

From the standpoint of food companies, says The Guardian, this is about "finding innovative ways to give isolated people the kind of choices the rich have enjoyed for years and are providing valuable jobs and incomes to some of the most marginalized."

Baby food and non-dairy creamers?

Maybe selling items like these brings jobs to some people, but it also brings nutrient-poor diets, obesity, and the resulting chronic diseases to those populations.

The ultimate costs will be high.

Image: thongchuea/Shutterstock.

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This post also appears on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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