Ethical Food Choices

For many people, it can be quite overwhelming to realize just how much suffering and injustice goes into the familiar products that line our store shelves. Whether it’s the abuse of animals, the exploitation of workers, the failure to offer healthy foods, environmental devastation, or all of the above, there can be a temptation to throw up our hands in defeat and conclude that it’s just not possible to make ethical food choices.

We understand that impulse, and it truly does feel overwhelming at times, for everyone. It’s our hope that the resources on this website will help make these choices easier for you. The fact that the problems loom large surely doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can to address them. And, armed with knowledge about the issues, we can do quite a lot through the choices we make.

One of the easiest things we can do is to identify particularly “bad actors” in the corporate world, so we know what products and companies to absolutely avoid. With that in mind, the following are a few examples worth highlighting.


cokeprotestEven among companies with egregious environmental and worker’s rights records, Coca-Cola stands out.[1]

In India, Coke unlawfully pumped 1.5 million liters (400,000 gallons) of water a day from local reserves, leaving farmers without enough water to irrigate their crops, and draining the community’s drinking water supply. The company also contaminated fields, wells, and canals in the process – leading to widespread misery and community upheaval[2] — and have sought to mislead investors about the environmental consequences.[3] The world’s largest beverage company, Coke used 283 billion liters (73.5 billion gallons) of water in 2004 … a fact put into perspective when remembering that we live in “a world where over 1 billion people cannot meet their basic water needs.”[4]

In China, separate investigative reports[5] have found a shocking range and systemic pattern of workers’ rights abuses at Coke facilities. These include providing inadequate (or no) protective equipment, an excessive use of so-called “dispatch labor”[6] to avoid standard employer obligations (similar to “employee misclassification” in the U.S.[7]), forced overtime, having workers sign blank contracts, refusal of back-pay, and the denial of the right to unionize. Workers who have protested their treatment were rewarded with beatings from supervisors.

In Colombia[8] and Guatemala[9], there is a long, documented history of anti-union activities[10] at bottling plants on par with the worst episodes in labor history anywhere. This includes the intimidation, kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of labor organizers and their loved ones, often via paramilitary forces in collaboration with local management[11]. Union-busting efforts in Pakistan have included extortion, blackmail, abduction, and death threats.[12] Workers in the Philippines report vast labor abuses, as well.[13]

In El Salvador, Coke’s sugar suppliers have been caught using child labor in the fields[14].

In Mexico, Coke has engaged in a range of predatory activities. To name just a few, their aggressive retaliation against whistleblowers and massive fraud[15], their standard over-exploitation of water resources[16], and aggressive marketing of their product to school children and the rural poor (by some counts, 80% of Mexican schools lack decent access to water).[17]

The scope of these abuses is staggering and difficult to process, but one thing is clear: Anyone concerned with issues of worker justice, environmental responsibility, and the integrity of local communities worldwide should avoid Coca-Cola and its products.[18]


nestleactivistThe Swiss corporation Nestlé is the world’s largest food and beverages company, with a net profit in 2011 of 9.5 billion Swiss francs ($10.35 billion).[19] It produces iconic products like Nesquik chocolate powder and syrup, as well as Nescafe, Nestea, and popular candies like Baby Ruth, Butterfingers, and Kit-Kat. All told, Nestlé owns more than 6,000 brands worldwide, in markets ranging from “petcare” to infant formula.[20]

Nestlé got its start in 1905 by developing a cow-milk formula for babies whose mothers couldn’t nurse; over a century later, its use and marketing remain controversial. While it’s well established that breast milk provides numerous health advantages for infants, including protection against infection and disease, Nestlé has aggressively and specifically marketed its formula to some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.[21] This promotion is dangerous to public health because formula must be mixed with water (often either contaminated or in short supply in many countries) and requires sanitation protocols that could easily be misunderstood or difficult to achieve (leading to diarrhea and other life-threatening symptoms for the very young).

Such marketing also flies in the face of the 1981 World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (PDF), which prohibits ads for formula with “pictures or text (…) which may idealize the use of infant formula” and give the impression that formula is safer or more nutritious, stipulating that all such products should inform the public that breastfeeding is best. These are mandates that Nestlé has violated for decades.

Instead, Nestlé has a robust internet presence specially tailored to sell its infant products across the globe, including extensive multi-lingual translations of ads, superimposed on invariably light-skinned babies, to boost its worldwide sales. As International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) documents, Nestlé formula is advertised in Lithuanian magazine ads, and provided free of charge in Bulgaria. A leaflet distributed in Botswana claims that by using Nestlé formula “diarrhoea and its side effects are counteracted,” without mentioning the risks of unsafe water. In Thailand and South Africa, Nestlé has directly given out samples to new mothers, provided health facilities with free supplies, promoted formula to pregnant women and mothers in health facilities, and distributed gift packets to obstetricians, pediatricians, nurses, and general health workers. In Armenia and Indonesia, special displays and posters in grocery stores promote Nestlé formula. The company has given out special branded baby suits and distributes “prescription” forms to clinics for new mothers to take to the store; in return, doctors receive a 10% commission when their patient purchases the formula. In China, Nestlé sends sales reps to shops and supermarkets and donates infant formula to hospitals.

Like fellow beverage giant Coca-Cola, Nestlé uses vast quantities of limited water supplies. It has taken full advantage of water privatization trends around the world, including in the U.S. It has drained aquifers, employed price-gauging tactics, and polarized communities. The production, distribution, and packaging of its brands of plastic-bottled water – Arrowhead Springs, Calistoga, and Poland Spring – also come with an enormous environmental cost.

The chocolate the company uses for its ubiquitous candies is among the most unethical available. Sourced from West Africa, particularly Cote d’Ivoire[22], its harvesting relies heavily on child labor[23]. This is unsurprising, given its abuses of worker’s rights elsewhere in the world[24]. A lawsuit in California, filed by International Rights Advocates, implicates Nestlé, along with agribusiness giants Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, in the trafficking of Malian children to Cote d’Ivoire to work on cocoa farms.

Nestlé’s subsidiaries have considerably ugly stories of their own to tell. For instance, the company also has a significant stake in the “pet” food market, second only to Mars, Inc. in market share worldwide. Nestlé brands include Puppy Chow, Purina One, Fancy Feast, Alpo, Beneful, and Friskies. [25] All of these brands have engaged in animal testing. For instance, a paper presented at the 2011 Nestlé Purina Veterinary Symposium details how healthy puppies were infected with canine distemper virus, then fed a probiotic to compare results to a test group; a similar study was later performed with cats.[26] It is a particularly sad irony that some animals are tortured to produce food products for other animals. This is often done simply to enable companies to boast that products are “New and Improved.” Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called for the “the development of new methods that could reduce or replace animal testing.”[27]

For all of these reasons, Food Empowerment Project recommends that consumers avoid Nestlé products.


????????????????????????????????????????It’s hard to overstate the influence that Monsanto, the chemical and agricultural sciences giant, has had over the food we’ve eaten in the last hundred years.[28] One of the largest corporations in the world and a mainstay of the Forbes 500, the company is effectively a gatekeeper to the global food supply.[29]

Beginning the 20th century as a pure chemicals company (producing, among other things, the food additive saccharin[30], supplied to a fledgling Coca-Cola), Monsanto has had a hand in everything from plastics to digital optics. In the 1930s, it began producing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for industrial use as lubricants, coatings, and sealants; PCBs are also carcinogens associated with reproductive, developmental, and immune system disorders[31]. Dioxin, a cancer-causing byproduct of PCB production, is very much still with us, and remains a concern for workers, farmers, communities, and consumers[32]. People who consume animal products are at greatest risk: according to a 2003 National Academies of Science report, “animal fat in the diet accounts for close to 90% of dioxin exposure in the United States.”[33]

Monsanto’s “life sciences” arms are most associated with insecticides, herbicides, and defoliants, as well as genetically modified organisms. The company manufactured some of the most infamous chemicals that exist, including DDT (notably profiled in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and banned in the US in 1972)[34] and the defoliant known as Agent Orange, which killed at least half a million people in Southeast Asia, sickened millions more[35] and left a poisonous legacy that impacts local communities to this day.[36]

The company also developed and manufactures bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which has contributed enormously to animal suffering and led to such environmental and public health concerns that it has been banned outright in many places outside the U.S., including Japan, Canada, and the European Union.[37] In order to combat the financially undesirable (and horrifically painful) infections that rBGH and similar hormones cause for cows raised for milk, farmers have dramatically increased the amounts of antibiotics they use.[38] Today, farmed animals consume 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S.[39]

Monsanto is one of the most aggressive forces pushing for genetically modified organisms. Alongside acquiring patents for products like Calgene’s FlavrSavr tomato (the first genetically modified food reviewed and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for human consumption[40]), it has patented numerous GMO seed lines, aggressively marketed them worldwide, attacked traditional methods of seed-saving, and both threatened and sued farmers.[41] It has also patented “Terminator seeds,” which can be planted only once, compelling farmers to buy a new supply every year instead of saving seeds from previous seasons.

Roundup, the world’s most used herbicide, and “Roundup Ready” seeds provide a similar insight into Monsanto’s corporate philosophy. After developing and distributing the highly toxic (and lucrative) chemical, Monsanto genetically engineered Roundup Ready seeds, which are specifically resistant to it. This has led not only to large amounts of Roundup being used in the first place, but to “superweeds” that have developed resistances of their own.[42] There are also concerns about possible gene migration to non-GMO crops[43], effects on the health of humans and wildlife[44], and the basic fact that a single company produces both an extremely toxic herbicide and patented seeds tailored to resist it.

Given that it is, at root, a chemicals company, it’s no surprise that Monsanto has engaged in horrific animal testing, including contracting tests out to the notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences. It has also had activists opposed to its business practices surveilled, hiring a subsidiary of the military firm Blackwater to conduct intelligence operations on animal rights and environmental groups.[45]

Given the vast reach of its products, and the scope of its ambitions, Monsanto differs from other companies profiled here. It’s relatively easy to avoid buying Coca-Cola products, for instance, which are generally non-essential junk foods anyway. When a corporation controls most of the world’s corn, it is more difficult to avoid. Complicating matters further, Monsanto also owns a vast network of subsidiaries, many of which, unlike their parent company, market and sell organic and vegan products.[46]

Rather than conceding victory to Monsanto on the basis of its market share, however, there are a few things we can do. Avoiding Monsanto subsidiaries, to whatever degree we can, is essential, and simply going vegan will already eliminate your participation with many of those products. Whenever possible, we can also support local, organic farmers through CSAs and farmer’s markets or even grow our own food.

These acts may seem small, but they are powerful. At the same time, Monsanto’s dominance over the world’s food systems – that is, peoples’ access to food worldwide, our ability to produce it, the integrity of local agriculture, and even what constitutes “food” in the first place – requires organized and sustained activism on many fronts. There are efforts afoot to legally require the labeling of GMOs, and many coalitions of concerned people have been confronting Monsanto head-on.

Palm oil

Palm oil, an edible oil derived from the pulp of fruits of the oil palm, is used in margarine, shortening, cooking oil, soups, sauces, crackers, and other baked goods. After soybean oil, it is the world’s most widely used oil. In the U.S., palm oil is used primarily in processed foods and often in combination with the more familiar soy and canola varieties.[47]

The plantations on which palm oil is produced have required a tremendous amount of deforestation and fostered significant injustice. In Indonesia, more than 27,000 square miles are devoted to supplying the palm oil market, with a huge increase – nearly 11 million tons – between 2000 and 2009. This expansion includes tropical lowland forests and could realistically wipe out entire species.[48] The story is similar in Malaysia.[49] In Cameroon, proposed locations of palm oil development lie at ecologically sensitive nexus points between already protected national forests, threatening wildlife in numerous ways and overriding local opposition.[50] In Colombia, peasant families have been forced off their land and their houses destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations.[51]

Deforestation necessarily involves threats to animals living in the regions affected, including direct threats – like poaching or forced removal – and indirect threats like habitat loss, which has been a catastrophe for already endangered Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos, and Asian elephants.[52]Orangutans have been shot, kidnapped, and killed in order to clear land for palm oil plantations and to prevent them from eating and destroying young palms. In March 2012, hundreds are believed to have died in fires deliberately started for that purpose.[53]

Palm oil is not only a food commodity; it was once the great hope of biofuels. Its cultivation has turned out instead to be a climate change disaster. Establishing a plantation typically requires clearing massive tracts of land and the addition of large amounts of chemical fertilizer to the soil. The process often involves draining and burning peatland, which sends huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Because of palm oil cultivation, Indonesia has recently become the world’s third largest producer of climate change-causing greenhouse gases, behind the U.S. and China. Leaked data from the European Commission shows that palm oil’s carbon footprint is actually greater than crude oil’s and is only slightly less than that of oil from the tar sands.[54]

Due to growing consumer concern about the consequences of palm oil production, industry has joined forces with large environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund to promote more “sustainable” methods. Through efforts like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), major producers and processors promise to both continue large-scale production while also allegedly protecting the rainforest and its inhabitants, primarily through complicated off-sets, land concessions, and the use of already “degraded” rainforest. As the German news outlet Der Spiegel reported in May 2012, however, these promises haven’t amounted to much: one former WWF employee remarked, “Sustainable palm oil, as the WWF promises with its RSPO certificates, is really nonexistent.” [55]

Workers are routinely exploited at every stage of palm oil production around the world. In Colombia, the world’s 5th largest producer, workers struck by the thousands in late 2011 to protest cuts in benefits, subcontracting practices, and precarious work. Carloads of people were brought in to break the strike.[56] Throughout Asia and the Pacific, the extraordinarily toxic herbicide paraquat is being used on palm plantations[57] and endangering workers.[58] Indentured servitude and outright slavery are not uncommon, along with similar human rights abuses of workers.[59]

Given how pervasive palm oil is and the wide range of products in which it’s found (including many vegan products), it’s important to read the label to know what you’re buying. F.E.P. suggests you avoid palm oil whenever possible.

How can I help?

Learning about the “bad actors” in the corporate world makes it easier for us to make informed and empowered choices for ourselves and for our communities, even as we mobilize together for more systemic change. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way in making that change and helping create a more just world for all. To make finding vegan food easier, Food Empowerment Project has created a finding vegan food guide, please take a look!

*Please note, although Food Empowerment Project is linking to other organizations, we do not necessarily endorse the entire content of their website or mission. 


[1] Much of this information is drawn from resources made available by the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke:

[2] Johnson, Eric Michael. “Coca-Cola and Water Use In India: ‘Good Till the Last Drop’.” (8/24/17)

[3] “Coca-Cola ‘misleading’ investors over water use in India.” The Ecologist. cocacola_misleading_investors_over_water_use_in_india.html (04/23/10)

[4] Srivastava, Amit. “Coca-Cola and Water – An Unsustainable Relationship.” (9/6/17)

[5] Coke Concerned Student Group. ”Investigative Report on Hangzhou Coca-Cola Bottling Plant: A Disaster Caused by the Dispatch Labor System!” (12/09); ‘Coca Cola: The world’s most valuable brand is evading its social and legal responsibility’  (12/08)

[6] For a brief discussion of dispatch labor, see: China Labor News Translations. “The Dispatch Labor System in China Questioned.” (09/29/11)

[7] For a brief discussion of independent contractors, see: Department for Professional Employees. “Misclassification of Employees as Independent Contractors.” (8/24/17)

[8] Global Labour Institute. “The Coca-Cola Campaigns 1980-1985.” the_cocacola_campaigns_1980198/

[9] Letter from Bob Perillo, former Latin America liaison for U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project. (2010)

[10] Gill, Lesley. “Labor and Human Rights: The “Real Thing” in Colombia.” (11/28/04)

[11] NYC Fact-Finding Delegation on Coca-Cola in Colombia. “An Investigation Of Allegations Of Murder And Violence In Coca-Cola’s Colombian Plants.” (2004)

[12] “The Pause that Represses: Coca-Cola Pakistan Greets New Union with Death Threats, Abduction, Extortion and Dismissals.” (8/24/17)

[13] “Freedom at Work: Philippines.” International Labor Rights Forum. Retrieved 8/24/17 from

[14] “Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Child Labor in El Salvador’s Sugarcane Cultivaiton.” Human Rights Watch. 2004. (9/6/17)

[15] Campaign to Stop Killer Coke press release. “Investment Community Should Demand Coke CEO Muhtar Kent’s Immediate Ouster.” (05/11/11)

[16] War on Want. “Coca Cola The Alternative Report.” (8/24/17)

[17] Bell, Beverly. “Cola Wars In Mexico.” (10/06/06)

[18] As with most large corporations, Coca-Cola makes, distributes, and profits from many more products than the iconic brand that bears its name. You can find the full, searchable list here:

[19] McGrath, Maggie. “2017: Nestle, Pepsi And Coca-Cola Dominate The Field.” Forbes. (8/24/17)

[20] Retrieved March 14, 2012. “Nestlé: Brands A – Z.”

[21] Krasny, Jill. “Every Parent Should Know The Scandalous History of Infant Formula.” Buisness Insider. 2012. (8/24/17)

[22] Chanthavong, Samlanchith. “Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote d’Ivoire.” TED Case Studies. (8/25/17)

[23] Barclay, Eliza. “Nestle To Investigate Child Labor On Its Cocoa Farms.” National Public Radio. (11/29/11)

[24] Lydersen, Kari. “Crunch Time: Tunisian Union Protests Nestle Plant Sale.” In These Times. (1/8/10)

[25] Taylor, Jessica. “Top petfood companies: Our annual list of the largest petfood manufacturers worldwide expands this year with 15 companies.” (12/5/11)

[26] Lappin, Michael. “Clinical and research experiences with probiotics in cats (Sponsored by Nestle Purina).” Retrieved 3/15/2013 from

[27] Advancing Regulatory Science at FDA. U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration, Aug. 2011, (12/06/17)

[28] Bartlett, Donald L. and James B. Steele. “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear.” (05/08).

[29] Gillam, Carey. “CORRECTED – TIMELINE: History of Monsanto Co.” (11/11/09)

[30] Hartley, Jo. “Who and What is the Monsanto Chemical Corporation?” (04/24/08)

[31] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Health Effects of PCBs.” Retrieved 3/8/12.

[32] Grunwald, Michael. “Monsanto Hid Decades Of Pollution: PCBs Drenched Ala. Town, But No One Was Ever Told.” (1/1/02)

[33] Martin, David. “EPA dioxin assessment raises red flag for some.” (2/22/12)

[34] National Resources Defense Council. “The Story of Silent Spring.” Retrieved 3/8/12.

[35] Winn, Patrick. “Agent Orange maker Monsanto back in Vietnam.” (2/7/12)

[36] Rushe, Dominic. “Monsanto close to ‘Agent Orange’ settlement with US victims.” (2/24/12)

[37] Gucciardi, Anthony. “Banned in 27 Countries, Monsanto’s rBGH Inhabits Many U.S. Dairy Products.” (12/19/11)

[38] Food & Water Watch. “rBGH: What the Research Shows.” (9/10/07)

[39] McKenna, Maryn. “Update: Farm Animals Get 80 Percent of Antibiotics Sold in U.S.” Retrieved 3/15/2013 from

[40] “Genetically Modified Tomatoes.” Public Broadcasting System. (2/2/11)

[41] Bartlett, Donald L. and James B. Steele. “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear.” Vanity Fair. (05/08)

[42] Moseman, Andrew. “Evolution in Action: Roundup Ready Crops Create Roundup-Resistant Superweeds.” Discover Magazine. (5/5/10)

[43] Philpott, Tom. “Welcome to the Age of GMO Industry Self-Regulation.” Mother Jones. (7/14/11)

[44] Halloran, Amy. “Scientist’s Letter Raises Roundup Concerns.” Food Safety News. (2/25/11)

[45] Potter, Will. “Monsanto hired Blackwater Subsidiary to Spy on Animal Rights and Environmental Activists.” (9/17/10)

[46] Cummins, Ronnie. “Organic Elite Surrenders to Monsanto: Whole Foods Market okays GMO coexistence.” (1/27/11)

[47] Brown, Ellie, Ph.D., and Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D. “Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife.” Center for Science in the Public Interest. (05/05)

[48] Worldwatch Institute. “Global Palm Oil Demand Fueling Devastation.” (04/09)

[49] Young, Tom. “Malaysian palm oil destroying forests, report warns.” The Guardian. (02/02/11)

[50] Linder, Joshua M., Ph.D. et. Al. “An open letter written by several world-class scientists on the subject of a proposed oil palm farm in Cameroon.” National Geographic. (03/20/12)

[51] Syal, Rajeev. “Body Shop ethics under fire after Colombian peasant evictions.” The Guardian UK/The Observer. (09/12/09)

[52] Rondonuwu, Olivia. “Orangutans in Indonesia’s Aceh forest may die out in weeks.” Reuters. (03/28/12)

[53] Associated Press in Jakarta. “Rare Sumatran orangutans dying as fires rage in Indonesian swamp forest.” (03/28/12)

[54] Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an Eco-Nightmare.” The New York Times (01/31/07)

[55] Glüsing, Jens and Nils Klawitter. “Green Veneer: WWF Helps Industry More Than Environment.” Der Spiegel. (5/29/12)

[56] IUF, “Colombian palm oil workers strike for a collective agreement and against precarious work.” (10/27/11)

[57] Pesticide Action Network North America: “Stop paraquat in palm plantations.” (03/01/12)

[58] Pesticide Action Network Asia & The Pacific. “Stop Trading Away Workers Lives for Palm Oil Profits!” (9/6/17)

[59] Down to Earth. “Abuse of workers’ human rights at oil palm plantations.” Down to Earth 87. (12/10)