If Big Food Buys Your Favorite 'Natural' Food Brand, Will You Trust It? : The Salt Many alternative food brands have been swallowed by big food companies. Recently, Perdue bought Niman Ranch, which sells "natural" meat. But after a sale, will shoppers feel the product is the same?

If Big Food Buys Your Favorite 'Natural' Food Brand, Will You Trust It?

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For people who like their food natural, local and organic, these are unsettling times. In Alternative food is going mainstream. Big companies are buying up small ones. In the latest deal, Perdue Farms, the big poultry producer, bought Niman Ranch, which started as an idealistic protest against companies like Purdue. Consumers may wonder if they can trust the new owners, and some of the founders of those small companies wonder the same thing. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: There's a whole generation of food companies that started because a few people wanted to raise food differently, better, like Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch.

BILL NIMAN: For us, the innovation was raising animals without the use of pharmaceuticals and chemicals.

CHARLES: Around the same time in the early 1970s, Cascadian Farm, the organic food pioneer, got started. For Gene Kahn, the founder, it was a back-to-the-land move that turned into a business.

GENE KAHN: I became enamored by the whole notion of agriculture and farming and improving the environmental performance of agriculture.

CHARLES: And that's a goal that Lundberg Family Farms, the organic rice grower, had been perusing for years already. Grant Lundberg, the company's CEO, says it started with his grandparents and what they saw living through the dustbowl.

GRANT LUNDBERG: Remembering some of those experiences, they started to farm a little different from their neighbors.

CHARLES: All three of these companies had a vision and, also, ambition. They wanted to expand, which they did. They rode a wave of demand for humanely raised meat, organic fruit and rice. And before long, some big conventional food companies started calling with marriage proposals.

LUNDBERG: We have offers a lot.

CHARLES: That's Grant Lundberg from Lundberg Family Farms.

LUNDBERG: They want to explore. They want to talk about, you know, the idea of purchasing or make an investment in the company.

CHARLES: So these companies all faced a choice. Should they sell? Would that be selling out? Gene Kahn from Cascadian Farm can't stand that phrase.

KAHN: You know 'cause it's so akin to selling out your soul to the devil.

CHARLES: He says it's not that simple because part of the pitch that the big companies make is, we can expand your vision, convert more land to organic farming, raise more animals without hormones and drugs.

KAHN: Who do you want to work with if you're really committed to improving agriculture? Who is it that you want to talk to? You want to talk to yourself and people just like you, or do you want to talk to people who control all of the acreage?

CHARLES: These food idealists don't have anything against big companies, by the way. They all say big can be good; efficiency is what makes food affordable. Here's Grant Lundberg.

LUNDBERG: You're a cynic if you say only small companies can be - have values, aren't you? Somehow, you have to believe that size doesn't matter.

CHARLES: Over the years, many small alternative food brands have said yes to these deals. Honest Tea is now part of Coca-Cola. The French company Danone controls Stonyfield yogurt. Hormel owns Applegate Natural and Organic Meats. Lundberg Farms, so far, has stayed independent. Grant Lundberg says his company doesn't really need investors. And if you sell, he says there's no way to make sure the name, Lundberg Farms, will mean the same thing.

LUNDBERG: That your name would continue to represent that commitment to the environment, producing high-quality food.

CHARLES: Gene Kahn, though, sold Cascadian Farm to one of the biggest food companies in America - General Mills. That was 15 years ago, and he says it has worked out really well.

KAHN: They've not only preserved the ethics and the whole vision of the company. They've improved it.

CHARLES: Bill Niman, meanwhile, has complicated feelings about the recent sale of Niman Ranch to Purdue.

NIMAN: Right now, I feel pretty good about it.

CHARLES: He has some emotional distance by now to the company that he founded. He actually left Niman Ranch eight years ago.

NIMAN: The important thing is that Perdue is very capable of adhering to the same kind of standards for treating animals better and treating farmers more respectively.

CHARLES: They can do it, Niman says, and they almost have to because they just spent a lot of money for the Nimal Ranch name and reputation. They don't want to ruin it. But Niman does worry that the new owners will just try to maintain that reputation through marketing with slogans that don't mean much.

NIMAN: These bigger outfits have a lot of marketing power, and they're able to spin things and create confusion in the marketplace, which is a little bit frightening for me.

CHARLES: He says he has to admit he doesn't feel the same about Applegate products now that Hormel owns it. He doesn't buy Stonyfield yogurt anymore. He says it's a matter of trust. To keep that trust. the new owners of these companies may have to show that they're sticking with the principles of the founders. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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