In the late 1960s, a group of young health nuts launched Eden Foods as a fledgling co-op in Ann Arbor, Mich., with two goals: Find the purest, most vital foods for themselves, and make these products available to everyone else.
“The best thing about Eden Foods is that we’re doing exactly what we set out to do,” says company Founder and President Michael Potter. “And we’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
So good, in fact, that Eden Foods’ canned beans, soymilks and pastas are regulars on natural products store shelves. In 2009, Eden was selected as the third best company on the planet—and the best food company—by betterworldshopper.com, which ranked businesses based on their social and environmental responsibility record over the past 20 years.
In order to stick to its standards, the company, ironically, has carefully made changes through the years. For example, more than 10 years ago Eden switched to cans that weren’t coated in the chemical bisphenol-A, which has been linked to a host of health issues ranging from infertility to cancer. “We began using BPA-free cans before anyone heard of BPA,” Potter says. Despite the high investment—the company pays 14 percent more for the chemical-free cans—Eden never promoted the BPA-free packaging in order to boost profits. The can swap was simply the right thing to do, Potter says.
Some things at Eden are unlikely to change, however. The company could rightfully adorn its products with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic seal, but the emblem is conspicuously absent from Eden labels. “The seal’s not a symbol of the epitome of purity, which is what we pursue. It’s a paperwork system,” Potter says. Eden Foods goes beyond organic regulations, according to Potter, by getting to know all its growers and studying the soil where they plant the crops that end up in Eden products.
Fred Kirschenmann, owner of Kirschenmann Family Farms in Windsor, N.D., attests to the company’s personal and long-term commitment to its farmers. In 1992, Kirschenmann first agreed to grow durum wheat for Eden Foods’ then-new pasta, but heavy moisture that season overwhelmed wheat crops, causing fungus to damage Kirschenmann’s entire yield. He couldn’t make good on supplying durum wheat to Eden. Instead of washing its hands of the deal, Eden agreed to try rye, which happened to be in ample supply at Kirschenmann’s farm. “To me, that’s an indication of the company’s values,” says Kirschenmann, who has grown durum wheat and rye for Eden ever since. “They’re not going to walk away from something. They’re going to find a way to make it work.”
Remaining steadfast to its founding values has not always been a profitable strategy for Eden Foods. At 10 to 50 cents more a can than other brands of organic beans, Eden products don’t necessarily appeal to bottom-line consumers. “As far as being price competitive, it’s hurt us because it costs more to do what we do,” Potter says. “As far as being a principled company that our customers can rely on, it strengthened us.”