Editor's Plate

Editor's Plate: Has GMA Lost Its Way?

With Nestle’s imminent departure, it’s time for some association soul-searching.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

At a time when transparency and consumer trust are universally accepted as paramount by food and beverage processors, how can their trade association work to undermine those pursuits?

That’s the situation Grocery Manufacturers Assn. has put itself in by putting the apparent business interests of some members above those of consumers – which should be the primary business interest of all food and beverage processors anyway. But apparently some companies have forgotten that.

And that’s precisely the kind of thinking that has caused many Big Food companies to see sales decline three years in a row now … while small food companies nibble away at Big Food’s market share and post double-digit gains.

My impetus for writing this is the news that Nestle USA will leave GMA at the end of this year, joining Campbell Soup, which made the same announcement in July. Those are two big and significant companies. Nestle – by some measures the world’s largest food company – did not publicly air its grievances with GMA, but Campbell CEO Denise Morrison pulled no punches: “At times, we find ourselves with philosophical differences with many of our peers in the food industry on important issues … and our trade association.”

I asked some Nestle USA spokespeople for comment and they said the company decision was not to explain why.

Politico, a news site that broke the Nestle story, did explain: “Nestlé has been at odds with the trade association on some of the most high-profile food issues in Washington in recent years. Nestlé was among a handful of companies that backed Obama administration efforts to mandate added sugars labeling and encourage food companies to cut back on sodium voluntarily – two policies that GMA lobbied against. Nestlé also helped push GMA to submit split comments on added sugars labeling to the FDA, so the association essentially included the pros and the cons of the policy rather than presenting a unified front opposing the idea. At the time, no one could recall a time when GMA had ever submitted such divergent comments on such a major – and controversial – regulatory issue.”

“The food industry has a big opportunity to be much more transparent and engaging,” Paul Bakus, president of Nestlé corporate affairs, told Politico in 2015. “I can’t tell you how quickly change has happened even in the last five years, or two years. It behooves these companies to be more progressive and transparent.”

Somewhere along the line, GMA has lost its way.

I was still in college when the National Canners Association became the National Food Processors Association, and just a little later, the Food Products Association (FPA). By any name, the group was the principal scientific and technical U.S. trade association representing America’s food manufacturers. Scientific and technical, not political.

I don’t think GMA was all that political in its early days, nor when it merged with FPA in 2007. But it certainly has become political since. It lobbied hard against the labeling of GMOs and added sugars and for delays in enforcement of the new Nutrition Facts panel (on that last issue GMA was victorious). Lobbying is one thing – questionable but not illegal – but breaking the law is quite another. Last year, a superior court judge in Washington state found GMA violated that state’s campaign-finance disclosure laws by shielding the names of companies that contributed to an $11 million campaign to defeat a 2013 ballot initiative to label GMOs. We’re not talking just bad judgment or business interests here, we’re talking criminality.

And stop saying that too much information just confuses consumers!

In its defense, GMA only does what its members allow it or tell it to do. But if GMA really wants to serve its members, it should practice a little tough love and tell them they’ve taken the association down the wrong path. More than political lobbying, Big Food needs an image campaign, extolling the industry’s virtues and endearing it to the consuming public. It no longer needs to be seen as the Evil Empire. That should be GMA’s mission.

Nestle and Campbell have seen the future of food. No doubt the people at GMA and even the cooler heads at big food companies have, too. I doubt Campbell and Nestle will be the last companies to leave GMA if things don’t change. But it’s not too late to change, for the good of the entire food industry.