by Claire Kelloway | Jul 3 2018
From hot dogs to beer to chips and even charcoal, you don’t have much of a choice in whom you pay to celebrate.
On this July Fourth, as millions of people gather to grill, imbibe, and celebrate liberty, their shopping carts will tell a much darker story about power in America. Even though the average grocery store carries tens of thousands of products, Americans’ Independence Day shopping dollars overwhelmingly go to a tiny number of enormous companies.
From hot dogs and condiments to beer and charcoal, these Fourth of July favorites show just how concentrated the American food system—and entire economy—have become.
Hot dogs and sausages
Three companies—Tyson Foods (Ball Park/Hillshire), KraftHeinz (Oscar Mayer), and Smithfield—sell about 60 percent of all hot dogs and sausages nationwide, and Tyson alone accounts for over 40 percent of sales, according to market-research firm IBISWorld. Americans will eat an estimated 150 million hot dogs on Wednesday, but extreme concentration in pork production could mean you are overpaying: A new class-action lawsuit claims that Tyson, Smithfield, and six other big pork players may be working together to limit production and increase pork prices, including hot dogs. (As of publication, only Hormel had responded to the suit, denying the allegations.)
Two companies, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, sell about 66 percent of all beer in America. The giants have also been estimated to control nearly 97 percent of the light beer market, and they’ve been busy buying up or investing in craft brands over the years. To further stifle competition, ABInbev has often pressured beer distributors into contracts with big bonuses to keep independent craft breweries off your shelves.
Just one company, PepsiCo (Frito-Lay), sells 59 percent of all potato chips and 71 percent of all tortilla chips in the country. Frito-Lay and PepsiCo merged in 1965 with the goal of advertising salty snacks as a combo alongside thirst-quenching sodas, though the feds blocked that effort in 1968. The merger nonetheless helped Frito-Lay become the first nationally-distributed potato-chip brand, and it has dominated chip sales since. Whether you like Tostitos, Doritos, SunChips, Ruffles, Stacy’s pita chips, or snacks like Cracker Jacks, Cheetos, Rold Gold pretzels, Sabra hummus, Quaker Oats products, Smartfood popcorn, or Grandma’s Cookies—Pepsi and Frito-Lay make them all.
Two companies, Unilever and KraftHeinz, sell more than 80 percent of all mayonnaise. This key component of any potato or macaroni salad almost became a true monopoly last year, when KraftHeinz made an offer to buy Unilever, only to retract the bid two days later. Meanwhile, Unilever leads in mayonnaise, with 51 percent of the market, making them a “category captain,” or a company that gets to decide where they and their competitors sit on the shelves in grocery stores.
KraftHeinz and rival ConAgra (Hunts) enjoy a combined roughly 75 percent lock on ketchup sales. KraftHeinz more generally claims a dominant position at the picnic table, providing everything from Crystal Light and Kool-Aid, to Jell-O and Cool Whip—even Kraft singles and Cracker Barrel cheese. But nowhere is the company more powerful than ketchup: Heinz sells 60 percent of the stuff in America, even producing their own line of tomato seeds for contract growers to use.
And one company, McCormick sells about 48 percent of all spices and seasonings, including popular brands like Grill Mates, Lawry’s, Thai Kitchen, and Old Bay. In the 1990s, McCormick pushed out a potential competitor, Burns, Philp & Co., by paying supermarkets exorbitant “slotting fees” and offering certain retailers steep discounts to claim shelf space. McCormick employees called this bidding match “the War,” and in 2000 the feds forbid the company from such price discrimination.
McCormick has since expanded into other condiments; having bought French’s in 2017 to claim 36 percent of the mustard market.
Grills and Charcoal
Founded in 1952, Weber-Stephen manufactures 59 percent of all BBQ grills made in America, though their share of overall grill sales has historically been significantly lower than that. Still, in 2016, Weber-Stephen was sued on antitrust grounds by Char-Broil over the collapse of an agreement related to the rights to manufacture kettle-shaped grills.
Finally, one company—Clorox (Kingsford)—makes 80 percent of all charcoal Americans use to actually cook on hot summer days. Kingsford brand charcoal, owned by Clorox, enjoys something close to a bona fide monopoly. The company was born as a by-product of Ford Model T production, when Henry Ford wanted to find an outlet for his sawmill’s waste wood, so he invented the charcoal briquette along with a University of Oregon chemist. The briquette company was called Ford Charcoal until 1951, when an investment group renamed it Kingsford, after Edward Kingsford, the real estate agent who sold Ford his forestland. Clorox bought the company in 1973.
Startling as they may be, these statistics do not paint the full picture of corporate concentration in America. A few powerful players constrict almost every step in our modern supply chains, squeezing the businesses around them, promoting further consolidation, and ultimately eroding what’s left of independence in modern life.
Imagine what the Founding Fathers, most of whom opposed anything that reeked of monopoly, would think if they could see how a few companies profit in the name of their nation’s founding. Certainly, it would disappoint Thomas Jefferson, who once opined, “The benefit even of limited monopolies is too doubtful to be opposed to that of their general suppression.”