Editor's Plate

Editor's Plate: Two New Grocery Manufacturers Associations Emerge

One still calls itself GMA, the other Sustainable Food Policy Alliance; both are big wins for consumers ... and for Big Food.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

There’s hope for Big Food after all!

I note two interesting news items of the past month: Four giant companies that left the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. last year formed their own Sustainable Food Policy Alliance. And GMA itself said the proposed labeling for GMOs does not go far enough if it does not require disclosure of refined ingredients that were sourced from a bioengineered crop.

Wow. The same group that fought GMO labeling in the trenches, that spent millions to defeat state referenda requiring GMO labeling, that was fined $18 million by a Washington state judge for violating campaign disclosure laws in an effort to defeat a 2013 GMO labeling referendum.

“If consumers do not believe that they are getting the transparency and ingredient information they demand, the repercussions will be felt most directly by the companies that make their food and beverage products,” the association wrote to USDA, which was collecting comments on its initial proposal for GMO labeling. By the way, the kinder, gentler term now being promoted by USDA is bioengineered, not GMO. “Consumers will hold GMA member companies and their brands accountable for any lack of product transparency.”

Duh. It took five years to figure that out?

Hopefully this signals the start of a new GMA, the one with a new CEO/executive director and a new chairman from the industry. Pamela Bailey, who (more or less) steered the association through 10 years of fighting transparency and consumer advocacy, retired. She was replaced on Aug. 1 by Geoff Freeman, who comes from the American Gaming Assn., the trade association for casinos and gambling – which gave me pause at first, but if he’s behind the USDA GMO labeling comments, he’s off to a flying start.

But the way most associations work, the CEO can only do what the board tells him or her. So to make the metamorphosis complete, Chris Policinski, CEO of Land O’Lakes and chairman of GMA the past several years, also retired, from both his GMA post and the presidency of Land O’Lakes. Apparently, hopefully, Freeman and new chairman Vivek Sankaran of Frito-Lay are steering the association in a new, consumer-friendly direction.

One of the reasons change was necessary was that 11 of GMA’s biggest companies quit the association over the past year: Campbell Soup, Nestlé USA, Dean Foods, Mars, Tyson Foods, Unilever, Hershey Co., Cargill, Kraft Heinz Co., Danone North America and DowDuPont. Most were circumspect on why they left, generally citing goals outside of the organization. But CEO Denise Morrison was clear when she made Campbell the first to leave that GMA had lost its way, especially on the subject of GMOs.

In July, four of those ex-pats – Nestlé USA, Mars, Unilever US and Danone North America – created their own trade association: the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance. Their website says: “As the makers of some of your favorite foods and beverages, we advocate for food and agriculture policies that improve people’s lives and protect the planet.”

The alliance has five priorities: consumer transparency, environment, food safety, nutrition and people & communities. “At launch, two important policy areas the alliance intends to engage on include: nutrition labeling and carbon emissions.”

Good start, but don’t forget the other three.

One of its initial statements, attributed to the presidents or CEOs of the four founding companies, promised: “The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance was founded on the principle that food companies can and should be doing more to lead and drive positive action for the people who buy and enjoy the foods and beverages we make, the people who supply them, and the planet on which we all rely.”

It’s hard to take issue with that.

For at least five years now, we and other parties interested in the food and beverage industry have been hammering home the message that consumer trust is the most important ingredient for success, and that trust has been lost. Transparency is the route to restore that trust. A lot of damage has been done in the past five years, but steps like these two are huge building blocks in the restoration.

Maybe the biggest lesson has been that consumers aren’t stupid and they are watching what goes into their food. That’s a good lesson for both groups to keep in mind.