Composite by Dan Myers
Love him or hate him, you can’t argue that Guy Fieri hasn’t been a major cultural powerhouse since his “Triple-D” debuted a full 10 years ago. Yes, his spiky blond hair, backward sunglasses, and surfer bro demeanor can wear a little thin at times, but at the core of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is a desire to showcase the hardworking chefs who keep America’s casual neighborhood joints going strong, and spending half an hour watching them do their thing is very entertaining indeed. It doesn’t hurt that business usually soars through the roof after Guy pays a restaurant a visit. Fieri also owns restaurants all over the place (Northern California, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Atlantic City, New York City, and the vessels of Carnival Cruise Lines, among other locations); he’s published seven cookbooks (his most recent, Guy Fieri Family Food, was released in October); and in 2011 he launched Cooking with Kids, a foundation that encourages the development of healthy eating habits in children.
Ina Garten spent years as a budget analyst in Washington before using money she earned flipping houses to buy a specialty food store in the Hamptons called The Barefoot Contessa. It’s the name she gave to a 1999 cookbook that sold 100,000 copies in its first year and to a Food Network cooking show that premiered in 2002. Since then, Garten’s star has risen beyond even her wildest dreams. Her idyllic life — preparing beautiful meals in her spacious Hamptons home for her fabulous friends and family — has her envious fans mining her every recipe and tablescape for inspiration. They’ve also voraciously devoured her 10 cookbooks; last year’s Cooking for Jeffrey sold 407,000 copies, more than any 2016 cookbook. Nowadays, Garten’s influence reaches further than even that of other domestic goddess Martha Stewart.
The vocal head of this increasingly high-profile organization, Newkirk led the company to another banner year in 2016. They convinced the National Institutes of Health to end maternal deprivation experiments on baby monkeys, forced SeaWorld to stop breeding orcas, and they exposed the ostrich slaughter industry, among other accomplishments (their efforts to ban the training of elephants for circuses is also cited as a factor in the decision of the century-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to close down this spring). The group's ever-widening influence on government agencies and courts demonstrates the power that the group has harnessed through its sometimes controversial awareness campaigns. On the food front, PETA actively promotes veganism and vegetarianism. They are vehemently opposed to factory farming, and when big restaurant chains announce a conversion to cage-free eggs or sustainably-raised meats, PETA usually has something to do with it.
The Kroger Co.
Kroger and its subsidiaries form the nation’s largest grocery store chain, the nation’s second-largest general retailer in terms of revenue, and the world’s third-largest retail operation. It operates nearly 3,000 supermarkets and multi-department stores in 34 states. The multiple dairies, bakeries, meat plants, and other production facilities feed millions of people a year, and Kroger's buying decisions affect the market on a major scale. But Kroger also sets an example for the industry in another way. Named by Forbes as the most generous company in America, its recent philanthropic efforts include $3 million for breast cancer awareness and $1.5 million to support the work of the USO. And with the 2013 acquisition of eastern chain Harris Teeter and the 2015 acquisition of Roundy’s (bringing Kroger back to Wisconsin after a 43-year absence), Kroger is continuing on its path to supermarket domination.
As queen of all media, Oprah Winfrey has made the careers of such celebrities as chefs Paula Deen and Art Smith and the health and diet gurus known as Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. When she decided that an obscure tropical fruit called the açai berry was the next magic elixir, sales of açai-flavored products soared. When she warned viewers about the dangers of eating contaminated meat during the Mad Cow hysteria, she worried Texas cattlemen so much that they filed a multimillion-dollar defamation suit against her (they lost). While Winfrey no longer has her famous daily talk show, her influence is still felt through her cable network OWN, as well as her monthly magazine O. And if anyone thinks her influence is on the wane, all they have to do is look at Weight Watchers’ stock’s 105-percent jump since she announced the purchase of a 10-percent stake in the company in October 2015. She also just released her first cookbook, Food, Health, and Happiness.
Diana Aviv is the CEO of Feeding America, the most expansive network of food banks and pantries in the country. Before joining Feeding America, Aviv was CEO of Independent Sector, the national leadership network for America’s nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs. Feeding America is the nation’s third-largest charity, serving more than 46 million people and providing over 3 billion meals in 2016. Last year, Feeding America reported revenues of over $2 billion, and the organization works closely with Walmart, ConAgra, and other major food manufacturers to secure meals for millions of Americans.
Julie Packard, a marine biologist, has run this showplace aquarium since it was opened in 1984 with an endowment from her parents’ nonprofit, the David and Lucile Packard (as in Hewlett-Packard) Foundation. In addition to being a first-rate educational facility, the aquarium spearheads numerous movements aimed at ocean conservation. Its most visible immediate effect on the American food community, though, has been through its efforts as a pioneer in the sustainable seafood movement. Chefs and responsible consumers all over the country now consult its Seafood Watch list (in the form of wallet cards, a website, and an app) of sustainable choices in fish and shellfish, thus impacting the seafood marketplace from coast to coast. The aquarium also hosts an annual Sustainable Foods Institute, addressing such issues as global food security, urban agriculture, and innovations in aquaculture.
United Natural Foods, Inc.
When we decide that we want to eat organic, sustainable, and/or "natural" foods, where do we get them — especially if we live in a part of the country where farmers markets only operate a day or two a week, and are seasonal at that? Whole Foods? Well, sure, but where does Whole Foods get the stuff? In large part, probably from UNFI, the country's largest distributor of natural products (edible and otherwise). UNFI distributes brands like Amy's, Organic Valley, Green & Black's, Muir Glen, Hain Celestial, Cascadian Farm, Annie's, Kashi, Back to Nature, Stonyfield Yogurt, American Flatbread, and many more, not just to Whole Foods, but to supermarkets, natural food outlets, and food co-ops all over America and in Canada and 40-plus other countries. Its Albert's Organics division is the nation's leading distributor of quality organic produce and other perishables, and UNFI also runs the Earth Origins market chain on the East Coast. If you're looking to eat green, in other words, UNFI will be glad to help.
Los Angeles Times
Colicchio's gig hosting Bravo's Top Chef has made him one of the most visible restaurant figures in the country, and the show has helped bring both veteran and novice chefs into the living rooms and onto the computer screens of individuals who don’t even watch Food Network. Colicchio is also an incredibly accomplished chef and the proprietor of a successful dining empire, with fine dining establishments like Craft, which celebrates its 16th anniversary this year and the just-opened, well-reviewed Fowler & Wells in downtown Manhattan, as well as the ‘wichcraft upscale sandwich shops, now in its 13th year and found all over the U.S. Colicchio has also been an outspoken advocate for ending hunger and food waste in America, serving as co-founder of Food Policy Action (keeping legislators accountable for keeping food safe, healthy, and affordable) and educating both lawmakers and the American public alike on hunger in America and the $200 billion problem of food waste.
The world's largest producer of fruits and vegetables, Dole operates in more than 90 countries, marketing bananas, pineapples (fresh and packaged), grapes, strawberries, and salads, along with all manner of other fresh and frozen fruits and juices. In 2013, billionaire David Murdock bought the company for $1.2 billion, taking it private. The 93-year-old Murdock previously brought the company back from near-bankruptcy in 1985, has been committed to finding a cure for cancer, and founded the Dole Nutrition Institute to advocate the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle.
An accomplished personal injury and products liability attorney specializing in foodborne illness, Bill Marler has been litigating foodborne illness cases since 1993, when he represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously sickened survivor of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, creating a Washington State record for an individual personal injury action ($15.6 million). More than a lawyer, Marler has become an advocate for a safer food supply, petitioning the USDA to better regulate pathogenic E. coli, working with nonprofit food safety and foodborne illness victims’ organizations, and helping spur the passage of the 2010-2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. It would only make sense that Marler was front and center in the recent Chipotle foodborne illness fray, representing several victims of the outbreak.
U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, representing Massachusetts’ second congressional district, is also co-chair of both the House Hunger Caucus and the Congressional Hunger Center. At the bipartisan House Hunger Caucus, which works toward fighting hunger in America and around the world, he’s an advocate for expanding child nutrition programs and obtained more than $800 million in funding for hunger programs, and he’s pushed for the creation of a “hunger czar” position to tackle food insecurity at the Congressional Hunger Center.
Share Our Strength
This national restaurant industry-centered nonprofit, whose ambitious goal is nothing less than ending childhood hunger in America, has long partnered with such concerns as Food Network, Walmart, and ConAgra, and sponsors nationwide programs like Jeff Bridges’ No Kid Hungry Campaign with a goal of succeeding in this imposing task by 2015. In 2013, Bill Shore partnered with chef Tom Colicchio (No. 42) and filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush to help promote A Place at the Table, a film that shines a light on hunger in America. SOS also raises money for its programs through such efforts as the popular Taste of the Nation events across the country and both the Great American Bake Sale and the Great American Dine Out.
Whoever holds this post is, ipso facto, the most powerful restaurant reviewer in the country. Wells (who prefers to keep his face hidden for obvious reasons) has successfully made the job his own since taking on the position in 2011, and he writes witty, insightful reviews, heavy on the Asian cuisine (but is that necessarily a bad thing?). His weekly assessments, like those of his predecessors, of New York (and occasional out-of-town) eating places can turn them into overnight successes or nudge them toward failure (and are sometimes very controversial), and the opinions he expresses, by extension, influence chefs and restaurateurs all over America. What he writes about next Wednesday will quite possibly be at your local strip mall by November.
You probably haven’t heard of Alfy, Pepe, Alexander, and Andres Fanjul, but they control a large swath of the American sugar market and have a powerful voice in Washington. Their conglomerate Fanjul Corp. owns Domino Sugar, Florida Crystals, C&H Sugar, Redpath Sugar, and Tate & Lyle Sugar, as well as a huge resort community in the Dominican Republic and its neighboring airport. They’re in control of one-third of the sugar used in this country, benefitting from government subsidies of about $2 billion annually. The family has influence and access at the highest levels of government; Alfie reportedly called Bill Clinton directly in 1996 to oppose a sugar farmer tax that was never passed, and Pepe is partly responsible for bankrolling Marco Rubio’s political career. By building alliances with both sides of the aisle, the Fanjul brothers have been able to control a large swath of the sugar industry, and the price — higher than it should be — that Americans pay for it.
Michel Landel has been CEO of Sodexo, the French-owned foodservice corporation that provides food for everything from U.S. Marine Corps mess halls to dozens of colleges and universities around the country, since 2005. Since then, he’s not only overseen a revolution in college dining hall fare, he’s also launched Sodexo’s STOP Hunger program, which combats hunger, malnutrition, and food waste in 42 countries. He has also taken great strides toward diversity and inclusion in Sodexo’s hiring practices.
It was Irene Rosenfeld’s decision to spin off Mondelez from Kraft in 2012, in order to focus on North American grocery operations, and before that, as CEO and then-chairman of Kraft, she boosted growth by reinvigorating iconic brands, transformed their portfolio, and expanded their presence in emerging markets. With 2014 revenues of $33 billion, a global initiative intended to broaden the reach of global nutrition efforts and sustainable agriculture, and the 2013 purchase of nine tech startups with the goal of driving mobile marketing and purchasing, Rosenfeld has brought Kraft fully into the twenty-first century. The same activist investors who pressured Rosenfeld to break Kraft and Mondelez into two companies are still pressuring her to cut costs and increase revenue, and she’s responded by boosting profit margins through tactics like zero-based budgeting and closing old factories, earning her the No. 9 spot on Fortune’s 2016 ranking of “America’s Most Powerful Women.”
Costco is the second-largest retailer in America after Walmart (and the third-largest in the world) and the largest membership warehouse club in the country. Under Craig Jelinek, who started his career as a checkout boy, Costco has continued its mission of making quality name-brand products, food and drink prominently among them, accessible to a wide clientele through bulk purchasing. Fresh and packaged foods account for 32 percent of Costco's annual net sales, with "sundries," including candy, snack foods, and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, accounting for another 23 percent. "One of the things people will always have to do is eat," Jelinek says. "I don't see that changing." Jelinek has become to poster boy for the efforts to increase the minimum wage, as Costco’s employees start out earning $11.50 an hour. A commitment to cage-free eggs was a major boon to the burgeoning movement.
Taking over for embattled CEO Donald Thompson after a lackluster 2014, CEO (and former chief brand officer) Steve Easterbrook has held the reins since March 2015 at the world's largest hamburger chain by far (69 million served — daily!). Over the years, the Golden Arches has changed American eating habits (if not necessarily for the better) in countless ways, introduced millions of customers to radicchio and baby lettuces, revolutionized the breakfast sandwich, and brought fresh-fruit smoothies to a whole new audience. McDonald's buys almost $1 billion worth of American beef annually (it is moving increasingly into the chicken marketplace as well) and is the largest purchaser of apples in the U.S. After the chain endured years of menu bloat and other strategic errors — most notably a flubbed rollout of Mighty Wings — Easterbrook finally righted the ship in 2015 by rolling out all-day breakfast, which led to a per-store increase in sales of 5.7 percent for the fourth quarter, the best showing in four years. He’s also taken strides to rebrand the chain as “a modern, progressive burger company,” committing to cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free chicken, and even rolling out new Big Macs. The “Create Your Taste” customization platform may have failed, and it was just announced that sales have begun to decline again after their all-day breakfast bounce, but with McDonald’s, the next big thing is always around the corner.
The dynamic duo of chef Mario Batali and his business partner, restaurateur Joe Bastianich, is on fire. The former— an ebullient, red-headed, orange-Croc-wearing culinary personality — heads up The Chew, an ABC-TV daytime offering proving that there's a place for food shows on non-food channels. This isn't the only way that Batali is changing our perceptions about what is probably the world's most popular cuisine — and about food in general. Whether he's dispensing the secrets of soulful Italian cooking, promoting their ever-expanding U.S. Eataly market/eatery concept (which also has locations in Chicago, downtown New York, and Boston, with Los Angeles in the works), or just offering his insights on culinary culture, we’re pretty sure we’ll be hearing a lot from him for a long time to come. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that his dozen-plus restaurants, run in partnership with "restaurant man" Bastianich, are mostly stellar; their first New York restaurant since Del Posto in 2005, La Sirena, opened two years ago to generally positive reviews and is in the process of pivoting to incorporate tapas.
From its "Two-Buck Chuck" house wines (now right-priced to "Three-Buck Chuck") and other wine and beer bargains — in states where grocery-store sales of alcohol are allowed — to its award-winning (and highly original) frozen food section to its great selection of, and palatable prices for, usually expensive staples like cheese, coffee, and nuts, Trader Joe's remains a grocery original. With 460 stores nationwide in 41 states and counting, Trader Joe's still stands alone in its style of savvy retailing. Its Southern California fresh-market roots have stuck (there is a famous Trader Joe's list of ingredients the chain won't accept in products it sells), and it has expanded the culinary vocabulary of a widespread customer base. Along the way, it has made food shopping rather fun.
Meyer's restaurants — among them Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café (which recently moved into a larger space, with stellar results), Maialino, North End Grill, and The Modern — number among New York City’s top dining destinations. He has also helped raise standards of restaurant service through his rigorous training programs (a Meyer establishment on a résumé is, for would-be managers, the equivalent of a Keller restaurant for would-be chefs), and even written a non-restaurant-specific book called Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. Then, of course, there's the Shake Shack effect. Not only has the immensely popular burger mini-empire continued expanding — there are now 100 of them and counting worldwide — it has served as a model for other chefs to serve quality food in a low-end context. Meyer made major waves a couple years ago when he announced that he’d banish tipping at all his New York restaurants, proving once again that he’s not afraid to be at the vanguard of dining trends, and plenty of other chefs and restaurants are following his initiative, including another restaurant he founded (though no longer involved with), Eleven Madison Park.
Seven years ago, nobody had heard of Pinterest — because it didn't exist. Launching (in closed beta) in March of 2010, it became the fastest-growing website in Internet history; in October it celebrated reaching 150 million monthly users who are receiving 10 billion recommendations per day. A photo-sharing website that lets users "pin" their own collections of images according to themes, Pinterest leads all other image-sharing sites in both consumer awareness and visits — and one of the most popular categories, along with DYI and crafts and women's apparel, is food and drink. Pinterest has taken the socialization of these subjects to a new level, becoming an ever-growing source for food and drink information based not on status updates but on a genuine visual/visceral sharing of recipes, food thoughts, restaurant recommendations, and more. Pinterest launched its first video ads last summer, and the company is expected to generate $300 million in revenue this year.
This ceaselessly energetic Asturian-born chef has almost single-handedly introduced Americans to real Spanish food — both avant-garde and traditional — as it is prepared and served in the twenty-first century, through his restaurants (among them minibar, é by José Andrés, three Bazaars, and four Jaleos, stretching from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles by way of Las Vegas, with New York City in the works), but also through his cookbooks and TV appearances. With his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, his activities in Haiti (which include a film project to celebrate that country's gastronomy), and other initiatives, Andrés is also a social activist, reminding fellow chefs of the breadth of their responsibilities to their communities. He was also named The Daily Meal's 2012 American Chef of the Year. His newest venture, fast-casual concept Beefsteak, exploded onto the DC scene in 2015, and he’s also been an outspoken opponent of President Donald Trump during their ongoing lawsuit.
With $14.3 billion in revenue in 2015, Aramark is the 23rd-largest employer on the Fortune 500. It provides food and facility services to thousands of clients in 21 countries, and manages restaurants and concessions at everything from corporate offices to schools, hospitals, national parks, and stadiums. Foss was brought on as CEO in 2012, and every day he and his team make decisions about what hundreds of thousands of people will be fed.
Culinary Institute of America
There are plenty of cooking schools around the country (including the estimable International Culinary Center and Institute of Culinary Education in New York City) but the most prestigious, widely known of all is the CIA (and we've heard all the jokes). A 1977 graduate of the school — which started life in New Haven in 1946 and moved to a former Jesuit seminary in Hyde Park, New York, in 1970 — Tim Ryan took the reins in 2001, and the institution has thrived under his direction. A roster of CIA graduates or former students reads like a history of contemporary American (and occasionally non-American) cuisine. Anthony Bourdain, Grant Achatz, Enrique Olvera, Michael Mina, Charlie Palmer, Todd English, Cat Cora, John Besh, Anne Burrell, David Burke, Roy Choi, Susan Feniger, Michael Symon, Geoffrey Zakarian… the list goes on and on. Under Ryan's directorship, the school has added degree programs in culinary management, embraced modernist techniques in some of its classes, opened a brewery, and launched satellite schools in San Antonio (where Latin American food is the specialty) and Singapore. (A landmark branch at Greystone in the Napa Valley was established in 1995.) There are plenty of great chefs out there who haven't been within a hundred miles of the CIA, but it remains the gold standard for serious instruction in the culinary arts, and Ryan just keeps pushing it forward.
The Teamsters are a major force in moving food and beverages, and the materials that go into making them, around the country. Besides transport, Teamsters members represent workers who produce and package various kinds of consumable products through their Bakery & Laundry, Brewery & Soft Drink, and Dairy divisions, among others. They also lobby the government, support political candidates, and influence corporate decisions as stockholders (in, for instance, Coca-Cola). Their strikes affect major supermarkets, food producers, breweries, and other concerns — either protecting the rights of workers or holding management hostage, depending on your point of view, but either way, most probably impacting consumer prices. James Hoffa — who, yes, is the son of the legendary Jimmy Hoffa, reported to be buried under several tons of concrete somewhere or other — has run the union since 1998.
Arguably no chef and restaurant owner has had more influence on young urban chefs and diners in recent years than David Chang, whom we named 2015’s American Chef of the Year. He found a middle ground between food trucks and pop-ups on one hand and too-serious restaurants on the other, proving that quality dining could exist in minimalist surroundings and that ramen, kimchi, pork buns, and fried chicken could be fine-dining fare if they were based on the best raw materials and skillfully cooked. He encouraged (knowingly or not, at first) imagination and energy and style in up-and-coming chefs, his own and otherwise, and incidentally helped give hip Korean food its modern culinary currency. He has opened successful restaurants not just in New York City but in Washington, D.C., Toronto, and Sydney; his pastry chef, Christina Tosi, has redefined the American dessert repertoire; he launched the smartest food magazine of the twenty-first century (the award-winning, idiosyncratic Lucky Peach); and even developed his own food-delivery app, Maple, and introduced an innovative reservation system. The industry watches Chang and learns from him — and if it sometimes tries to one-up him, that's even better for food in America.
National Restaurant Association
As the country's main food-service lobbying organization, the NRA — not the gun one, but the National Restaurant Association — represents more than 500,000 establishments around the country, from fine-dining restaurants and fast-food chains to food suppliers and nonprofits. It has also set up food safety programs; it provides scholarships in hospitality and culinary studies, assists its members with maintaining sound environmental practices, and runs the Kids LiveWell campaign encouraging restaurants to serve healthy options for children — while also opposing Obamacare and efforts to raise the minimum wage, positions which put them in the political mainstream in 2017.
This insanely popular photo-sharing and social networking site, which adds the frosting of a photo manipulation system that allows users to apply various special effects to their images (doubtlessly rescuing countless lousy shots by turning them artsy), must be doing something right: Facebook bought it in 2012 for about $1 billion. Instagram lets people make restaurant discoveries and get cooking ideas based on what their friends and networks are experiencing.
Bob Walter replaced David Novak at the helm of Yum! Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, in May 2016. Yum! has nearly 43,000 restaurants in 130 countries and territories, and raked in more than $13 billion in 2015. Walter, who was previously the Yum! Board’s Lead Director, was previously best-known as the founder of Cardinal Health, which provides products and services to the healthcare industry.
Paul Polman is the chief executive officer of Unilever, a company that owns brands including Hellman’s and Ben & Jerry’s, and raked in $4.9 billion in net income in 2014. Polman isn’t your usual CEO — he’s been called “radical” by some — and he’s on a mission to use his position for the greater good. He’s launched a Sustainable Living Plan that aims to cut the environmental impact of Unilever products in half by 2020 and lift small farmers out of poverty, is helping to end cruel egg industry practices, and has taken strides to prevent deforestation in packaging its products.
This former CBS news producer, who was born in Greenwich Village and once accompanied Martha Stewart on a lifestyle reporting visit to Cuba, signed on to the Food Network in 1999, and has since taken on an increasing number of duties, earning her present title and cornucopia of responsibilities in 2013. Her purview now includes not just Food Network and its sibling, Cooking Channel, but also the increasingly food-heavy Travel Channel — not to mention HGTV, Great American Country, the YouTube-ish ULIVE, and the non-food-related DIY Network. With the exception of Top Chef, Gordon Ramsay's various shoutfests, and a handful of other shows, if you watch food TV, chances are pretty good that you watch something Kathleen Finch has her hands on. Much has been written about declining viewership for Food Network, but it's still the big player in the field, averaging 6 million viewers a day.
Archer Daniels Midland
Providing agricultural storage and transportation service and operating more than 265 plants worldwide where cereal grains and oilseeds are processed into products used in the food, beverage, nutraceutical, industrial, and animal feed industries, Archer Daniels Midland has been named three times by Fortune as the world's most admired food production company (among other things, it partners with Feeding America). At the head of the table is Juan Luciano, who since taking over on 2015 has led efforts to invest in new port facilities in Europe and South America, begin construction on new feed plants in the U.S. and China, and expand production capacity around the globe.
This billionaire has had more impact on coffee culture than arguably anyone else in American history, and he’s kept his company, Starbucks, at the vanguard of connecting with customers and building a loyal clientele. Starbucks has successfully ventured into the breakfast segment thanks to a measured and calculated approach. However, Howard Schultz isn’t just influencing how we drink coffee; he’s also a technology pioneer, having introduced a mobile payment feature in 2011 as well as an app with more than 19 million monthly active users and a popular mobile order-and-pay feature. He’s also transformed Starbucks into the greenest company in the world. And with plans in place to open 1,400 new locations in China by 2019, its global influence continues to grow. Schultz announced late last year that he’ll be stepping down as CEO this April; we’re sure that his replacement, current COO Kevin Johnson, will pick up right where he leaves off.
If you eat chicken in America, you almost certainly eat Tyson. The firm continues to be the world's largest meat producer and the second-largest food-producing company in America. Its birds cram grocery-store cooler shelves and it is the exclusive supplier of chicken to a number of chains like McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King. Tyson gives back, too: It is well-known as a generous corporate donor, giving millions to children's charities, family shelters, community parks, and recreation areas. The company has committed to eliminating human antibiotics in broiler chicken production by September 2017.
Grocery Manufacturers Union
You might not have heard of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, but it plays more of a role in your life than you may think. The GMA is the world’s largest trade association representing the food, beverage, and consumer products industry. Many of the world’s top food companies are represented, like ConAgra, General Mills, Unilever, Cargill, and Mars, and together they take on big issues: Their current battle is over GMO labeling (they're against it) and the right to call foods with GMOs "natural" (they’re for it). As president and CEO, Pamela Bailey is the most visible member of the organization, working to deliver its messages to the American people in a clear, concise way that paints the companies the association represents in the best possible light. It’s a tricky job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Perhaps you've heard of Amazon, founded by Jeff Bezos, a onetime Wall-Streeter from New Mexico, as an online bookshop in a Seattle garage in 1994? It’s the largest internet-based retailer in the world, the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure services, and the most valuable retailer in the U.S. Books are still a key part of the business — nobody sells more cookbooks — but today the company will also be happy to supply you with anything from fountain pens to camshafts, showerheads to stereos, piano lessons to paintball guns. Oh, and food. And wine. The site currently offers at least a million (!) different food items, from breads to jams and jellies to soups and stocks, as well as around 10,000 different wines — and that's not to mention cookware, glassware, table settings, barbecues and smokers, kitchen furniture, and kitchen appliances large and small. In 2007, Bezos got into the grocery delivery business, too, going head-to-head with Fresh Direct and Peapod and now trucking food to folks not only in Seattle, where it launched, but in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Austin, New York City, parts of New Jersey, and even London. Last year, it announced that it will open 2,000 grocery stores in the next 10 years, at which shoppers will be able to check out via their smartphones.
Kraft and Heinz merged to form the world’s fifth-largest food company in 2015, with products — including not just thetwo eponymous brands but also Jell-O, Grey Poupon, Planters, Maxwell House, Oscar Mayer, HP Sauce, Ore-Ida, and many more — in 98 percent of all households in the U.S. and Canada, and former Kraft COO George Zoghbi is COO of all U.S. commercial business for the company. He leads the company’s $19 billion U.S. business, comprising five commercial business units, and oversaw operating income increase by 254 percent in the third quarter of 2016.
American Beverage Association
Susan Neely heads the American Beverage Association, a powerful lobby that’s spent tens of millions of dollars over the years (including nearly $19 million in 2009) to advance the interests of some of the country’s largest non-alcoholic beverage companies and bottlers, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé. Recent initiatives include improving labeling and shrinking bottle sizes in an effort to fight obesity, leading the charge against former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed “soda ban” in New York City, and fighting proposed soda taxes.
The largest privately held corporation of any kind in the United States in terms of revenue, Cargill is an international producer and marketer of food and of agricultural, financial, and industrial products and services, and is celebrating its 151st year. In the second quarter of 2014, it saw a 41-percent rise in net earnings from the same period in 2013, and its revenue for 2015 was a whopping $120.4 billion. Cargill also runs a farmer-training program; contributes 2 percent of its global consolidated pretax earnings to environmental, educational, and health and nutrition programs around the world; has stopped using gestation crates for all of its breeding sows; and is committed to building deforestation-free supply chains.
William J. Delaney has been employed by Sysco, the world’s largest broadline food distributor, for more than 25 years, and has been CEO since 2009. Under his management, the company has continued to grow and increase its presence around the world, providing the basic ingredients for food served by hundreds of thousands of restaurants, including many chains. Delaney was instrumental in arranging 2013’s merger with rival US Foods, and in helping to restructure the company when the merger agreement was terminated in 2015.
Yelpers mouth off on much more than restaurants and food products, but contributors to this spirited site have written more than 95 million local restaurant reviews. Yelp has been racking up more than 135 million monthly visitors, and for an ever-increasing percentage of American restaurant-goers, this is the place to go before going out. The experience is enhanced with photos, rankings, and opportunities for restaurants to fire back. In answer to accusations of abuse — like restaurants (and other enterprises) paying for positive reviews or pseudonymously denouncing their competitors — the company has increased monitoring activities and aggressively outs offenders. In November 2015, Jeremy Stoppelman brought 100 entrepreneurs to Yelp’s headquarters for an inaugural business leader summit in which they discussed everything from best hiring practices to improving business offerings. It has also recently launched a rewards program for reviewers, will warn you if a restaurant has a bad health score, can use photos and AI to recommend restaurants, and has just rolled out an updated app to book reservations. If that isn’t influence, we don’t know what is.
With a portfolio that includes Frito-Lay, Quaker, Pepsi-Cola, Tropicana, Aquafina, and Gatorade, PepsiCo owns what is almost certainly the world’s largest collection of food and beverage brands, including 22 different product lines that each generate more than $1 billion in annual sales. (Their salt and sugar bills must be enormous.) Since being named to her current position as head of PepsiCo in 2006, Indra Nooyi was named Fortune’s "Most Powerful Woman" five years in a row (she placed second in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016, and third in 2014). While Nooyi has spearheaded new lines of nutrition-conscious products (like stevia-sweetened orange juice and reduced-fat potato chips), landed a huge deal with the NBA, and removed aspartame from Diet Pepsi, shareholders are reportedly unhappy with her efforts in the soft drink field, where Pepsi has lost market shares to its longtime rival Coca-Cola. Still, Nooyi remains adamantly against splitting up their beverage and snack divisions.
Whole Foods Market
Whole Foods has changed the buying and eating habits of a generation or more and encouraged the development of new businesses, large and small, to satisfy its increasingly health- and environment-conscious clientele. The company has more than 435 stores in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and in 2015 total sales increased by 8.4 percent from 2014 and a record 38 new stores opened. John Mackey is a prominent Libertarian, and has been criticized for not supporting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, opposing unionization of his stores, pooh-poohing global warming, and carrying GMO products. On the other hand, he has also led the chain into establishing an Animal Welfare Rating System for all meat sold in the stores, made efforts to greatly increase the proportion of sustainable seafood Whole Foods sells, and launched the Whole Kids Foundation, an organization that partners with schools and educators to make healthy food available in schools.
Since 1976, when he passed the bar and went to work as a staff attorney for the FDA, Taylor has swung back and forth between government regulatory agencies and the private sector, at one point working for the USDA and for several periods being employed by Monsanto or one of their law firms. Back in officialdom, he has held his present post since 2010. In January of 2011, President Obama passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which entrusts Taylor and his agency with carrying out new regulations, and also gives the FDA more authority to direct safety and recall policies and review the procedures of food-producing firms. The resulting prevention-based strategy represents one of the most far-reaching reforms of food safety law in the past 70 years. In 2016, major FDA accomplishments included approving a surgically-implanted device to treat obesity, drafting guidance for the food industry for reducing sodium in processed food, completely overhauled the standard nutrition facts label, and forced several food companies to shut down after food safety violations.
Monsanto, which remains the world's largest producer of genetically modified seeds (it is also the manufacturer of Roundup, the most commonly used agricultural pesticide around the world) and patents its seed varieties (which means that they must be purchased anew each year instead of being saved from season to season), has survived countless protests, lawsuits, and government actions over the years. In any case, a rep told us that Hugh Grant's corporation “views farmers as the most important people in the food chain.” Even though Monsanto’s net sales dropped in 2015 by $850 million (forcing the company to lay off 16 percent of its workforce by 2018) it still has a major influence on the food we eat, and what we will eat more of in the future, whether we like it or not.
Though it sells many other kinds of merchandise as well, Walmart is the world’s largest grocer, and more and more consumers are buying their groceries at big-box stores like Walmart and Target than ever before. As head of Walmart’s $298 billion domestic business, Greg Foran is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of more than 4,500 Walmart stores, which serve more than 140 million customers weekly. He’s directly responsible for leading the charge on Walmart’s massive food operation and the logistics required to keep it running smoothly, including making sure its supply chain and network of distribution centers keep chugging along smoothly, as well as overseeing strategic investments.
The USDA plays a vital role in how we perceive and interact with food, overseeing the country's food safety systems and setting nutritional guidelines in an era when farm incomes are falling and debt levels are rising. During his time as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for the Obama administration, Tom Vilsack worked to help support economic recovery by focusing on agricultural infrastructure and renewable energy sources for farms, made the fight against childhood obesity a priority spearheaded the USDA's revision of the emblematic Food Pyramid, and from 2009-2013 he oversaw the strongest five years in history for agricultural trade. Clearly, whoever replaces him has some very large shoes to fill; it’s currently acting Secretary Michael Scuse, but Donald Trump has nominated former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue to fill the role. Perdue has a doctorate in veterinary medicine and has major agribusiness ties (though he's not related to the Perdue chicken folks), so we’ll see what changes he has in store for the 100,000-employee, $155-billion agency.