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Your Favorite Artisanal Food Brand Is Probably Owned by a Huge Company

Mother Jones

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Big Food is in a pickle. Its core business—packaged, pre-cooked fare—remains profitable, but sales are shrinking. Consumer distrust is mounting. One response has been to maintain profits by slashing expenses. Conagra, the behemoth behind such one-time powerhouses as Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti and Pam spray oil, recently announced it would cut $300 million in annual costs and lay off 1,500 workers.

Another time-tested strategy is to snap up smaller, independent companies operating in niches of the industry that are actually growing, like organics, for example. That means that what started as your favorite local organic food brand—Naked Juice, Dagoba chocolate, LaraBar—now belongs to a much larger, much less local company.

Last week alone, three much-loved small players succumbed to the appetites of larger players:

• Spam king Hormel gobbles up an organic peanut butter player. It might seem bizarre that Hormel—the topic of Ted Genoways’ excellent 2011 exposé on working conditions on the slaughterhouse floor—would drop $286 million on nut-snack company Justin’s, which started as a stand in the Boulder Farmers Market in 2004. But Hormel has been diversifying away from canned pork for a while. It spent $700 million to take on supermarket peanut butter titan Jiffy in 2013. By broadening its portfolio to include Justin’s—probably most famous for its organic peanut butter cups—Hormel is adding rapid sales growth. Hormel had already displayed its taste for the sweeter growth prospects and profit margins offered by organic and “natural” foods when it spent $775 to buy niche meat player Applegate a year ago.

• A very European-like midsize cheese-maker gets snapped up by a European giant. Switzerland-based Emmi is a globe-spanning cheese titan with $3.3 billion in annual sales. Its offerings now include those of Cowgirl Creamery, which sells about $20 million per year of cheeses from cows raised on the lush rolling hills of Northern California’s Marin County. For US cheese lovers like me, the thought of Cowgirl falling into the maw of a large company is like seeing your favorite local coffeehouse get bought by Starbucks. Although, to be fair, Emmi isn’t exactly Kraft—it sells some pretty high-quality cheeses in the United States, like gruyere. And as the San Francisco Chronicle notes, Emmi has already demonstrated its fondness for Northern California cheese—it bought Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery last year and Cypress Grove Chevre in 2010. Another European behemoth, Heineken, also bought a bit of Northern California chic when it gulped up a 50 percent stake in craft-beer maker Lagunitas last year.

• A great Sonoma County niche winery gets swallowed by a California-based titan. Full disclosure: I can’t afford to drink them very often, but I love the lean, light, pretty wines of Sonoma County’s Copain, which makes about 20,000 cases per year. I don’t love the big, high-alcohol ones favored by Kendall Family Wines, which are cranked out at the rate of 5.6 million cases annually, from wineries that span the globe from California to Chile to South Africa. So I won’t be toasting this deal (the price of which has not been disclosed.) But I do hope it signals a shift away from the “jammy fruit bomb” style that has dominated the wine world for decades, a stubborn trend ably skewered by Jonathan Nossiter’s excellent 2014 documentary Mondovino.

In all three of these deals, the charismatic founder(s) of the smaller company has vowed to maintain full control of the brand’s quality and vision as it moves forward under the shadow of a conglomerate. Here’s hoping they do.

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Your Favorite Artisanal Food Brand Is Probably Owned by a Huge Company

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Ben Carson on Americans: "Many of Them Are Stupid."

Mother Jones

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When retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the current GOP 2016 front-runner, campaigns, he routinely pitches “common sense solutions from We the People.” But it seems the candidate who celebrates a cheerful and straightforward populism has a fair bit of disdain for many of his fellow citizens, for at a videotaped event last year, while discussing the American people, he declared, “Many of them are stupid.”

Carson made this observation while speaking at the Richard Nixon library on October 19, 2014, as part of a book tour. After a fifteen-minute talk—prior to a book-signing—Carson was asked if he might run for president as an independent. He vowed not to do so, noting this would fracture the Republican vote. He then pivoted to another topic: unnamed political foes—presumably liberals, progressives, secularists, Marxists, or whatever—penetrating key elements of American society to gain control of the nation:

They can twist and turn things as much as they want. But what they don’t understand—and they miscalculated. They were doing a great job in terms of fundamentally changing this nation. In terms of infiltrating the school systems. In terms of infiltrating the media. All of this—they’ve done a great job. Everything was perfect. Except they underestimated the intelligence of the American people. The people are not as stupid as they think they are. Many of them are stupid. Okay. But I’m talking about overall.

The crowd laughed when Carson made that crack about dumb Americans, and Carson let out a loud guffaw.

In answering the same question, Carson also noted that he could escape the corruptions of conventional politics by deftly using social media, and, with no apparent sense of hyperbole, he suggested that Fox News was preventing America from becoming a totalitarian state:

Even if all the media tries to shut you down—which they have tried very much to do with me. But they can’t because the good Lord has provided me with mechanisms like my syndicated column and like Fox News. We’d be Cuba if there were no Fox News.

This was another applause line for the crowd of Carson fans, who had greeted Carson’s arrival with shouts of “run, Ben, run.” According to the financial disclosure form Carson filed in June that covered the preceding 12 months, he made $492,115 as a Fox News commentator and $137,148 as a columnist for the Washington Times.

Carson’s remarks about stupid Americans and the insidious plotting of unidentified elements to sneakily seize key American institutions were in sync with previous statements from this political novice who recently vaulted to the front of the Republican pack. Carson has long noted that he’s a fan of W. Cleon Skousen, who in 1958 wrote a book called The Naked Communist, a dark and paranoid screed that maintained that commies had “penetrated every echelon of American society”—from PTAs, art salons, media entities, social program offices, and entertainment companies to the “highest offices of the United States Government.” Skousen believed that the civil rights movement, acceptance of homosexuality, the rise of abstract art and modernism, and the advent of Medicare and Social Security were all part of a clandestine scheme mounted by communists and others to destroy the United States. Twelve years later, Skousen expanded his conspiracy theorizing to claim that a global cabal of bankers controlled the world from behind the scenes.

Carson has repeatedly—including last year on Fox News—cited Skousen, who died in 2006, as the key to understanding what has happened in the United States over the past half-century. The most recent edition of Skousen’s book trumpets Carson’s endorsement on the front cover: “The Naked Communist lays out the whole progressive plan. It is unbelievable how fast it has been achieved.” In 2007, the conservative National Review called Skousen an “all-around nutjob.”

Asked if Carson thinks that many Americans are stupid, a Carson spokesman said, “Sounds like he forgot to insert his usual ‘in Washington.'”

Carson does seemingly believe that for decades the American public has been slyly manipulated by an enemy from within. And he often decries political elites for adopting a condescending approach toward the citizenry and imposing their own views and positions upon the rest of the nation. On the campaign trail, he dismisses political experience as a qualification for office and contends that a candidate who demonstrates faith, honesty, and character can effectively govern by relying upon the wisdom of the American people. Yet at the Nixon library, Carson indicated he holds a significant number of voters in low regard. Presumably, they don’t count in his We the People.

Here’s Carson’s full talk at the Nixon library.

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Ben Carson on Americans: "Many of Them Are Stupid."

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Elizabeth Warren Joins the Battle to Overhaul the Senate Filibuster

Mother Jones

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is lending her voice to the chorus of lawmakers who want substantive changes made to how US senators use the filibuster, the main tool of opposition by the minority party.

The impetus for Warren’s comments came on Tuesday, when Senate Republicans filibustered President Obama’s nominee to the influential DC Circuit Court of Appeals, Georgetown Law Professor Cornelia Pillard. If she’s ever confirmed, Pillard would be the fourth woman on this important federal appeals court, which decides often-consequential cases between the federal government and private parties. Senate Republicans have also filibustered Patricia Millett’s nomination to the appeals court and say they plan to block another appeals court nominee, Robert Wilkins, as well.

In the face of all this obstruction, Warren has joined progressive stalwarts such as Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) in demanding real changes to how the filibuster is used. “So far they have shut down the government, they have filibustered people President Obama has nominated to fill out his administration, and they are now filibustering judges to block him from filling any of the vacancies with highly qualified people,” she said. “We need to call out these filibusters for what they are: Naked attempts to nullify the results of the last election.”

Warren went on: “If Republicans continue to filibuster these highly qualified nominees for no reason other than to nullify the president’s constitutional authority, then senators not only have the right to change the filibuster, senators have a duty to change the filibuster rules,” Warren said. “We cannot turn our backs on the Constitution. We cannot abdicate our oath of office.”

Whether Warren’s call for filibuster reform results in any actual changes is unlikely. The closest we’ve come in recent years to real filibuster reform came in July, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid grew so angry at the GOP’s use (abuse, according to the Democrats) of the filibuster that he almost used the so-called “nuclear option”—changing the Senate rules so that a nominee could be confirmed with a simple 51-vote majority instead of 60 votes. At the last moment, Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cut a deal to avoid the nuclear option and instead confirm a slate of Obama nominees, including EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.

Plan for more close calls like Reid’s July showdown—but with both parties wary of losing the filibuster as a tool for minority power, don’t expect major reform any time soon.

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Elizabeth Warren Joins the Battle to Overhaul the Senate Filibuster

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