Late last month an email came in with the subject line “Major campaign to stop grocery price hikes reaches Biden administration officials.”
“Yesterday, a coalition of some of the largest food, agriculture, and retail organizations in the United States signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission highlighting how tariffs under review at both agencies could devastate millions of consumers and thousands of jobs.
“It's part of a sweeping opposition campaign spearheaded by the Consumer Brands Association in response to a petition filed with the ITC by steel conglomerate Cleveland-Cliffs, the email continued.” “The petition seeks to increase tariffs on tinplate steel – which is used to package everything from canned tuna to bug spray – by up to 300%.”
The background: Cleveland-Cliffs, the largest flat-rolled steel company in North America, along with the United Steelworkers Union, filed petitions with the International Trade Commission claiming China and seven other countries were dumping tin- and chromium-coated sheet steel products in the U.S. and otherwise undercutting reasonable domestic prices. The ITC made an initial ruling in their favor, suggesting tariffs of 47-296%.
The Consumer Brands-led coalition countered, “Significant job losses, inflation, increased imports of consumer goods, waning reliance on domestic agriculture and compounding socio-economic disparities are inevitable if the petitioner’s claims are accepted,” the coalition said.
Well, maybe. I applaud them for looking out for the consumer, something they never used to be good at but have tried to improve since their former incarnation, Grocery Manufacturers Assn., kind of imploded in 2017. After vehemently – even illegally – opposing consumer-led efforts to label bioengineered foods, 11 of the biggest companies in GMA quit the trade association that year. We’re not talking fringe, tree-hugging startups; the departures included Campbell Soup, Nestlé USA, Dean Foods, Mars, Tyson Foods, Unilever, Hershey Co., Cargill, Kraft Heinz Co., Danone North America and DowDuPont.
While most were circumspect about why they quit, there were strong hints they felt GMA was getting too political, too defensive on many consumer-facing issues. Campbell Soup’s then-CEO, Denise Morrison, was clear when she made Campbell the first to leave that she felt GMA had lost its way, especially on the subject of GMOs and other transparency issues.
So, seeing Consumer Brands step up for consumers (although, really, mostly for its members) is well and good. But one time isn’t a trend, and I’d be more impressed with a little self-reflection from the association and its members. Reports abound about shoppers abandoning brand loyalty due to price increases and suspected price gouging, even as inflation has begun to cool. Meanwhile, financial reports continue to roll in with record results.
If Consumer Brands wants to serve its members well, the association should emphasize to them how harmful unfair price increases can be for consumers … and for their long-term financial well-being.