FORTUNE -- Greg Page's only misgiving about the job offer he received from Cargill in 1974 was that it was from Cargill. He had grown up in tiny Bottineau, N.D., six miles from the Canadian border. His dad was the local John Deere dealer, who also owned an 800-acre hobby farm with 40 cows. "Cargill has historically had probably mixed sentiments about it out on the prairie," says Page. "That's who you sold your grain to." Farmers knew that if they didn't keep their wits about them, they might well get squeezed by the food giant. You knew to "keep a weather eye out," he says.
Page took the job anyway. He labored happily "in close proximity to livestock" for his first 24 years at Cargill, beginning with the feed division, then in meat, at home and abroad, until he was picked for bigger things. Eventually he was promoted all the way, in 2007, to chairman and CEO of the country's largest private company. Today he runs a business that is vastly larger and more influential than the Cargill of his youth.With $119.5 billion in revenues in its most recent fiscal year, ended May 31, Cargill is bigger by half than its nearest publicly held rival in the food production industry, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, Fortune 500). If Cargill were public, it would have ranked No. 18 on this year's Fortune 500, between AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) and IBM (IBM, Fortune 500). Over the past decade, a period when the S&P 500's revenues have grown 31%, Cargill's sales have more than doubled.
But those numbers alone don't begin to capture the scope of Cargill's impact on our daily lives. You don't have to love Egg McMuffins (McDonald's (MCD, Fortune 500) buys many of its eggs in liquid form from Cargill) or hamburgers (Cargill's facilities can slaughter more cattle than anyone else's in the U.S.) or sub sandwiches (No. 8 in pork, No. 3 in turkey) to ingest Cargill products on a regular basis. Whatever you ate or drank today -- a candy bar, pretzels, soup from a can, ice cream, yogurt, chewing gum, beer -- chances are it included a little something from Cargill's menu of food additives. Its $50 billion "ingredients" business touches pretty much anything salted, sweetened, preserved, fortified, emulsified, or texturized, or anything whose raw taste or smell had to be masked in order to make it palatable.
Despite Cargill's extraordinary size, strength, and breadth, it has long been remarkably successful at keeping out of the public eye. But the days when the company could get away with saying nothing and revealing less are over. "I think the world has curiosity about where its food comes from that is more earnest than it's been in the past," says Page, who earlier this year took the unprecedented step of allowing Oprah's cameras inside a Cargill slaughterhouse. (No video of the actual slaughtering, however.)
The simple fact is that the bigger Cargill gets, the more attention it draws. Timothy Wise, research director at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, points to several factors that have increased concerns about Cargill's rising power, including recent wild gyrations in commodities markets, "sticky-high" prices at the supermarket, and the ever deeper integration of Big Ag with global financial markets. Perhaps the most hot-button issue of all is food safety. In August, Cargill announced the largest poultry recall in U.S. history -- 36 million pounds of ground turkey linked to a salmonella outbreak at a factory in Arkansas that sickened 107 people in 31 states and killed one. "The public is justified in being wary of having any part of our food system controlled by a small number of large corporations," says Wise.
With wariness comes intense scrutiny of Cargill's motives and its means: from organizations like Rainforest Action Network, worried about Cargill's impact on Indonesian and Brazilian ecosystems; from Congress, concerned about antitrust issues and speculative trading strategies; and from the international community. Food security -- the challenge of feeding the world -- has recently risen to the top of the G20 agenda. The UN says that a billion people go to bed hungry every night, and that we need to double food production by 2025 just to keep up with population growth and better diets in the developing world -- grim truths that concern Cargill deeply, whether Cargill believes that solving world hunger is its job or not. "We're not a philanthropy," says Page, in one of a series of rare interviews that Cargill granted to Fortune over the past several months. "I think we have to be careful not to lay claim to an altruism that doesn't exist."
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