Some people have suggested 19 January should become a national holiday to commemorate the day we saw Vegemite Australian-owned again. Bega Cheese bought the factory and a number of Kraft brands in a deal worth $460 million. Bega is listed on the Australian stock exchange and many of its shareholders are the dairy farmers who supply its milk.
The fact that Vegemite has not been wholly Australian-owned since 1926 didn’t seem to feature in the announcement. Although the product has been, as it says on the pack, “proudly made in Australia since 1923” the brand has been at least partly owned by the Americans since three years after its launch.
Fred Walker, the principal of his eponymous company Fred Walker & Co., had commissioned his chief chemist, Cyril Callister, to develop the spread in competition to the British Marmite. Walker had been in the food manufacturing business since 1910, canning meats, butter, dripping and cheese – largely for export. His new spread, dubbed Vegemite after a public competition to suggest names, was less than successful, so he looked around for other, more profitable ventures.
Walker heard about James Kraft of Chicago who, in 1916, had patented a method for making processed cheese. After visiting America, in 1926 Walker formed a joint venture with Kraft Foods – the Kraft Walker Cheese Co. – to manufacture Kraft Processed Cheddar, Vegemite and other products. From that point on, the spread was partly American-owned.
Walker died in 1935 and in 1952 the company became Kraft Foods Limited. The US company acquired the rest of the Australian ownership, which at the time was sitting at just under 50 per cent. The change was reflected in the appearance of the Kraft logo on the Vegemite packaging for the first time.
Tracking the ownership of Vegemite from then on becomes complicated, as Kraft became involved in a complex series of take-overs, mergers and sell-offs. At the end of 1988, Philip Morris purchased Kraft for US$12.9 billion. The following year Kraft merged with Philip Morris’s General Foods unit. Further corporate deals ensued and in 2011 the company split into two divisions, the one newly named Mondelez International becoming proprietors of several of the Australian brands. Including our beloved Vegemite.
So it’s been a long road home. Bega, too, has dabbled with foreign ownership, with the New Zealand company Fonterra at one time owning part of the Australian cheese-maker. However, Fonterra sold its 9 per cent shareholding in 2015. It seems that Vegemite is safely back in Australian hands – at least until the corporate merry-go-round starts again.