Editor's Plate: GMA’s Rebuilding Year

With the CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association retiring, the group has an opportunity to correct its course.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

What do the Grocery Manufacturers Association, PepsiCo and the Chicago Bears all have in common?

Give me a few lines to answer that.

Out here in Chicago, the Bears said they will release their 2017 “quarterback of the future” Mike Glennon once the new National Football League year begins on March 14. Their current “quarterback of the future” is last year’s draft pick Mitchell Trubisky.

I won’t go into details, but you football fans out there probably know Glennon was the wrong guy, probably knew it from the start, and the Bears’ 5-11 record proved it. Rabid sports fans seem to be more forgiving of player mistakes than those of management, but I think it’s OK to say, “Oops, that was a wrong choice, we’re gonna try something else.”

Out there in Purchase, N.Y., there are strong rumors PepsiCo will go back to aspartame in its mainstream Diet Pepsi. Back in 2015, the company thought it was correctly reading consumer sentiments when it removed the synthetic sweetener in favor of two other synthetic sweeteners, sucralose and acesulfame potassium (ace-K). At the time, I applauded the effort … until I tasted the result. Diet cherry colas are my usual beverage, and I equally bought Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry and Coca-Cola Cherry Zero. When both had aspartame, I thought they tasted the same. Without the aspartame, I stopped buying Pepsi. I’d be happy to go back if Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry is re-reformulated.

Out there in Washington, D.C., Pamela Bailey is retiring as president/CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. On Feb. 12, she announced her intention to leave by the end of this year, following nearly 10 years of leading the food processors’ organization. A search is under way for her replacement.

Like a sports team in rebuild, this is a golden time for the association to take stock of where it’s been, especially lately, and where it wants to be and to hire a new quarterback – er, CEO – who can get them there.

Not being behind GMA’s closed doors, I don’t know if Bailey really was the signal-caller over the past 10 years or if she was bullied by a board that undoubtedly is composed of some very strong personalities. I’d like to name them, but you have to be a member just to get the list of executives, directors and committee assignments. Not exactly transparency in action.

As Chicago football fans and the owners did at the end of the Bears’ previous season, let’s look at GMA’s record since 2009 and decide if the GMA “team” is where it should be.

  • At last count, GMA lost 10 of its biggest companies: Campbell Soup, Nestlé USA, Dean Foods, Mars, Tyson Foods, Unilever, Hershey Co., Cargill, Kraft Heinz Co. 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.
  • In 2016, a Washington state judge fined GMA a whopping $18 million (and imposed another $1.1 million in legal fees) for violating state campaign disclosure laws by not identifying donors behind the association’s 2013 efforts to defeat a GMO labeling referendum. Media reports called it by far the largest fine ever in the U.S. for a campaign disclosure commission.

In writing Bailey’s eulogy, GMA included “involved in the bipartisan passage of a GMO labeling law” among the accomplishments during her tenure. Read that: “When the passage of some GMO labeling law became apparent, worked hard to water down a bill the public and even many congresspeople were clamoring for ... and which still hasn’t gone into effect.”

Hands down, the No. 1 issue in this business right now is consumer trust, and that’s facilitated by a big dose of transparency. Those should be the primary goals of your trade association; above even politics and lobbying.

Maybe GMA needs to move out of Washington, D.C., maybe to somewhere like Kansas. Or Colorado. Somewhere it can be close the people it’s supposed to serve, instead of the people it’s currently serving.

I hope the Diet Pepsi rumors are true. I hope the Bears return to the playoffs under Mitch Trubisky. And I hope GMA’s next president steers the organization back to the paramount issue confronting the food industry: establishing consumer trust.

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