Failing to keep up with consumers — the grocery lobby is losing members

Failing to keep up with consumers — the grocery lobby is losing members
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For more than 100 years, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has been the public face and political force of American food companies. This trade association has been a powerful force in shaping the way America eats and is an aggressive advocate for its member companies.  

But a raft of recent defections by major food companies interested in a healthier food supply, reported on extensively, is hollowing out GMA and raising questions about whether the trade association will catch up with consumer’s growing interest in nutrition and health.

Just last week, we learned that Kraft Heinz and DowDuPont are the latest brands to head for the exits, joining the Hershey Company, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Unilever, Mars, and the dairy giant Dean Foods, all of which had jumped ship earlier.

 

The Campbell Soup Company was one of the first to break ranks. Its CEO, Denise Morrison, told investors at the time that GMA no longer represented the company’s interests and cited differences over compliance with new Food and Drug Administration rules requiring updated Nutrition Facts labels with information on added sugars, as well as labeling of genetically engineered ingredients.

Nestlé, the world’s biggest food company, and thus presumably a major contributor to GMA’s coffers, bailed in October 2017. Besides splitting from GMA on added sugars labeling, Nestlé was one of the loudest industry supporters of the FDA’s proposal to nudge companies to curb their salt use.

Some companies are more circumspect about their reasons for leaving than others. But it’s clear that many in the food industry perceive GMA as fossilized and out-of-touch with both its nimbler members and, more importantly, the marketplace.

Consumers are paying closer attention to nutrition and health than ever before, and future-facing companies are listening to them and aligning their positions on key nutrition policies accordingly.

Food companies are also frustrated that GMA’s lobbying is creating needless confusion. On everything from nutrition facts labeling to the FDA’s voluntary sodium reduction targets, GMA’s lobbying is making the future murkier for its member companies and more bewildering for consumers.

The proof is in your supermarket aisle, where more than 15,000 products bear the new Nutrition Facts label that GMA wants to delay, while other companies lag. It’s doubtful that, without a fundamentally different and improved vision that puts the health of consumers first, GMA will ever be able to bring the dissidents back into the fold.

“To me, it looks like GMA is the dinosaur just waiting to die,” one former GMA executive said. Another person Politico that food industry lobbyists are complaining about having to spend more time lobbying GMA than they are lobbying on Capitol Hill.

GMA may be on its last legs, but the question is what will take its place. Will the exodus of more progressive food companies inspire reform at GMA — or will the association double down on regressive policies? 

Whatever moderating influence these more enlightened companies had on GMA is now likely gone.

Could a new trade association that represents the values of transparency and improvements in nutrition sought by consumers fill the void? Perhaps. But, if GMA hardens its positions, the once-venerable trade association deserves the dinosaur’s fate.

While GMA dithers, the marketplace has already voted. Consumer interest in health is not some ephemeral trend; it’s a feature of the most enduring foods and companies.

Brands that support sensible public health measures will come out winners, rewarded for understanding that a consumer marketplace that values health and transparency is also good for companies.  

But those, like GMA, that want to conduct business as usual and ignore what consumers want, will continue to lose market share and — inevitably — relevance and power.

Peter G. Lurie, M.D., MPH is president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is a non-profit group that advocates for safer and healthier foods.