Food from Big Business?

$174.9 billion

is the worth of American agricultural products exported around the world in 2023.

70% more food

will be needed from U.S. agriculture by 2050 to feed the U.S. and world populations at its current rate.

one third

of U.S. “food and beverage manufacturing” workers worked
in meat and poultry in 2021 (the last year for which data is available).


of all U.S. employment is in agriculture and related industries.

Sources include the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture, the USDA Census of Agriculture, and the USDA.

Rod Brenneman worked for 25 years in senior leadership positions in the food industry, including 14 years as president and CEO of two different companies: Butterball, the world’s largest turkey producer and processor, and Seaboard Corporation, which he helped build from its infancy to a $1.7 billion-dollar pork processing company. He currently serves several boards within the food and nonprofit sectors.

We’ve all seen the “Colin the Chicken” sketch from Portlandia — and if you haven’t, set the magazine aside for a few minutes and let YouTube catch you up — in which an earnest, food-conscious couple goes to caricaturistic heights to learn about the chicken served by a restaurant. It’s a parody of Portlanders, sure, and a spoof of a “foodie” culture, in which a real priority is placed on what you could call boutique-style food sourcing. This generally relates to restaurants and community farms or co-ops.

Another spectrum exists. Here in the United States, some 44 million people live in food insecurity, a term ascribed to a range of situations in which people have little, no, or inconsistent access to nourishment. Globally, the number balloons to and around 1.5 billion. This presents a need some bougie restaurants won’t be able to meet.

At the time Rod Brenneman led Butterball, the company sold 41 million turkeys per year, which amounts to feeding something like 75 million people a year. That’s just turkey and that’s pretty limited to the U.S. and Canada — Butterball at the time provided one out of every five Thanksgiving turkeys. When he was working with pork, the company sent meat to Mexico, all over Asia, South Korea, Japan, and China.

Earlier this year, Brenneman talked about the (big) business of food with Common Good‘s editor.

A certain cultural narrative assumes big business, especially in areas like food, is somehow antithetical to good work. As you led huge food companies, how did you see it?

We were providing food to a world that needed food. I don’t want to make too strong of a moral statement, but there really was an element of that. There are a lot of people in the world who don’t have access to food like we do in the United States. And I still to this day would tell you that while it’s great to have small farms, and I certainly don’t have anything against them, by themselves it would be difficult, if not impossible for them to feed the entire world. By having larger scale and very regulated operations (USDA) from both a food safety and animal welfare standpoint, we will move closer to being able to provide food to people who don’t have access to food otherwise.

What do you make of the sentiment that large-scale food production inherently includes animal cruelty?

While it’s easy to pick on large corporations, most people don’t realize that these larger  businesses like Seaboard and Butterball are highly regulated by the USDA, with far more oversight and safeguards than many smaller farms. The question I would always ask people who were claiming we abused our animals is, “Why would we want to abuse the animals that we were trying to use to produce high quality food?” It would make no sense. We would be shooting ourselves in the foot. And, by the way, abusing the animals would also make conditions where they didn’t grow as fast or efficiently, and that just wouldn’t be in our best interest.

When you started at Seaboard in ’89, were you getting a business job or a food job?

At the time I went to Seaboard, it was more of a business job and I was on the corporate side in finance for about five years. And then when we started Seaboard Foods I started in the financial/admin side of that company. By the time I was named CEO, it was a food and a business job. They’re kind of one and the same. But we clearly were focused on the type of product we were going to produce for the markets that we wanted to go after. In our case, we wanted to make sure we produced a high quality product that would not only be for the U.S. domestic market, but would also be acceptable in the Japanese export market and Asian export market, which actually demanded  higher quality than the U.S. did.

To what extent did it matter to you if you enjoyed the turkey?

It absolutely mattered to me. We would always try things, as we were developing products. Obviously we’d do real consumer studies as well, but if we didn’t think the product was good, we certainly wouldn’t spend the money to take it to a panel of people.

How does a food-related big business compare to a company involved with a non-food product?

When you’re dealing with food, a perishable product has a shelf life of a certain number of days and then it’s not good anymore. Whereas when you’re dealing with other products, non-food products, you may have an indefinite shelf life. Retail customers, for example, want a certain amount of remaining shelf life when they put it on their shelf to sell to consumers. Let’s say fresh meat starts at the processing plant and, once it’s packaged, it’s got a 28-day shelf life. A retailer might have a requirement to receive it with no less than a 15- or 20-day shelf life. You’ve got to deliver your product so that the store has time to put it on the shelf, so that the consumer who comes and buys it has a good amount of shelf life remaining as well. The business is a function of figuring out all those variables.

How do you think that your faith had a particular bearing on your work in the food industry?

I always felt like my work in the food industry was my mission field, that it was where God wanted me to be. I’m not going to say it was all good, but there were certainly a lot of positives that came out of that. In my case, people knew where I stood, but I didn’t throw it in their face. It was more just by the way we acted and the way we ran the business. We tried to model ethics, Integrity, and stewardship in our culture. Those things were important to me in how we operated the company.

Now that I’ve left those day-to-day operating roles, I serve on boards of companies in the food space and I work with a nonprofit where we have developed a hydroponic berry business (agribusiness). We use the profits from that business to fund a ministry in Ukraine as well as provide both jobs and job-skills training for young people. Whether it’s directly or indirectly tied to feeding people with good food they wouldn’t otherwise have access to or, even in most cases, to feeding people who have plenty of access to good food — we were still feeding people. I always felt like that was part of my calling.