Editor's Plate / GMOs

Editor's Plate: GMA Should Lobby Its Own Members

If the association really wants to help its members, it should save Big Food from itself.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

What do Campbell Soup and Senator John McCain have in common? They both bucked the party line in the past month, choosing conscience over camaraderie and seeing the writing on the wall, writing that their peers either didn't see or didn't want to.

McCain came back to Washington from some initial surgery for brain cancer to cast the deciding vote against the latest Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And he's a Republican. Their presidential nominee in 2008.

Campbell Soup in the past month announced it's leaving the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. because "at times, we find ourselves with philosophical differences with many of our peers in the food industry on important issues … and our trade association," CEO Denise Morrison announced at the company's Institutional Investor Day in July. "For example, viewing GMOs through the lens of our purpose caused us to think very differently about transparency and we changed our position on GMO labeling."

So while GMA was fighting hard against the labeling of GMOs, Campbell broke ranks in January 2016 to declare it would state the presence of GMOs on its product labels.

"Another issue is the delay in the implementation of the FDA's new Nutrition Facts panel [GMA lobbied for the delay]. While the FDA has agreed to delay implementation, we're continuing to drive to meet the original deadline of July 2018."

I can only I imagine how the debate and infighting over GMOs raged at the GMA board meetings. At least I hope it raged. But it's become clear the association picked the wrong side. For one, GMO labeling will become the law of the land – even if there is some Trump administration delays. And the association will lose one of its biggest members over it. Oh, and there's that $19 million in fines and penalties in Washington state.

Back in 2013, GMA spent $7 million on a campaign in that state to defeat a referendum that would have required GMO labeling (the referendum narrowly lost).

Washington's attorney general Bob Ferguson charged the group violated campaign disclosure laws by not identifying where the money came from. 34 companies, including Campbell Soup, contributed; PepsiCo, Nestle and Coca-Cola donated more than $1.5 million each.

Late last year, a Washington state judge fined GMA a whopping $18 million (and imposed another $1.1 million in legal fees). Media reports called it by far the largest fine ever in the U.S. for a campaign disclosure commission.

I'm sure GMA is guided by some charter, plus it has dozens of members clamoring for defense of the status quo. But there should be no status quo in the food & beverage world; things are changing way too fast.

Hands down, the No. 1 issue in this business is consumer trust … with a side order of transparency. Shouldn't those be the primary goals of your trade association? Above even politics and lobbying?

Maybe GMA should start lobbying its own members. Some of them need saving from themselves.