The death of the “Big Food” era is imminent after the industry’s biggest lobbying group crumbles

A powerful food lobby gets shaken to the core.
A powerful food lobby gets shaken to the core.
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
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One of America’s most powerful food lobbying groups has been neutered, largely abandoned by its own industry after failing to adequately contain or respond to changing consumer tastes that food makers have found threatening.

A succession of high-profile, global companies have terminated their memberships with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—the self-professed “voice of the industry”—rapidly undoing some 110 years of work the trade association had done to amass influence in US politics. In July 2017, as first reported by Politico, the Campbell Soup Company decided to leave GMA by the start of 2018, saying the trade association no longer represented its views. Three months later, the world’s largest food company, Nestlé, announced it was following suit. Then the floodgates opened, with Dean Foods, Mars, Tyson Foods, Unilever, the Hershey Company, Cargill, the Kraft Heinz Company, and DowDuPont all opting to leave, as well.

These high-profile departures will likely cost GMA millions of dollars in lost membership dues; one top lobbyist with a former member company speculates the association may lose about half of its former financial might. In 2016, GMA reported spending nearly $35 million on lobbying initiatives.

Publicly, the companies that left GMA are mostly vague about their reasons for defection. Privately, though, their executives have complained about disagreements with management, arthritic association bylaws, and a seeming unwillingness to budge on issues. As the lobbyist puts it, rather than trying to evolve with consumer demand, GMA leadership chose instead to be pugnacious about issues like GMO transparency and improved food-package ingredient labeling.

“The whole world changed in a five-year period and they don’t realize it,” the lobbyist says.

Disagreement over issues

In recent years, the food industry has been invaded by nimble and competitive startups promising healthier options, touting things like an absence of GMOs in their products, lower sugar and sodium contents, and simpler ingredients lists than the products made by the large multinational manufacturers. The stalwarts struggled to react, and smaller brands such as Honest Tea and Chobani were able to gain traction in markets once dominated by the likes of Coca-Cola and General Mills.

GMA exacerbated the problem by fighting against policy initiatives that would require food companies to include GMO disclosures and the quantity of added sugars to food packaging labels. The group instead developed—and continues to champion—a controversial concept it calls the “SmartLabel.” SmartLabel is essentially a system where manufacturers put QR codes on food packaging that, when scanned with a smartphone, leads consumers to a webpage with nutrition and ingredient information. The SmartLabel program is optional, and while many GMA members support and use the SmartLabel idea, some have complained that it makes it too difficult for potential customers to access necessary information. The Center for Food Safety called it “non-labeling hiding as labeling.”

Increasingly, some of the largest GMA members—like Nestlé, Unilever, and Mars—began to see the trade group as more of a problem than a boon. GMA was “just too stubborn,” says Peter Lurie, the president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. So the companies gave up on the trade group, and left, figuring they could just as easily represent their interests in Washington on their own. Indeed, since leaving GMA, Nestlé has increased the number of in-house lobbyists it employs in its new US headquarters in Northern Virginia.

“As we continue to transform our business, we are looking forward, not backward,” said Paul Grimwood, the chairman and CEO of Nestlé USA in a statement to Quartz. “If we’re truly going to serve our consumers, it’s critical that we keep pace with them. They want greater transparency and more engagement. They want action on issues they care about, like climate change, and they want healthier, simpler foods for their families.”

A shot at redemption?

In February, GMA announced that, after nearly a decade as CEO, Pamela Bailey would be retiring. Bailey had previously appeared on lists ranking her among the most powerful women in food. At least four high-ranking staff members have also parted ways with the group since Campbell’s ended its membership last summer.

“We are in the midst of a reinvention at GMA,” says association spokesman, Roger Lowe. “Our board has been very active in trying to create the GMA of the future.”

But precisely what that reinvention entails isn’t clear. Lowe says the group is “still working through” those decisions. Meanwhile it will continue to push the SmartLabel, and already-adopted initiatives, which include unifying its members to use standard sell-by-date labeling language as a means of cutting back on food waste. Lowe says GMA still has a role to play:  “We provide a voice for the industry,” he says.

But when asked if an organization without the world’s largest food companies could realistically call itself the voice of the food industry, Lowe paused.

“We believe that once we show the reinvention work that we’ve done, and embark on this different path, we’re hopeful that many members that left will come back,” Lowe says.

More transparency in DC lobbying

New York University nutrition and food studies professor Marion Nestle says a wounded GMA is unequivocally a good thing for everyday people eager for better access to information about the foods they’re eating.

“The positions that GMA took were really, really retrogressive on a range of consumer issues,” Nestle says. “All these companies are trying to position themselves as being consumer-friendly.”

The defanging of GMA is a sign of the times—not just that the food industry is changing, but also that perhaps the era of powerful trade associations, in some respect, is drawing to a close. The rise of social media gave consumers everywhere unprecedented access to the companies that sell them food and outlets for sharing information and opinions about those companies.

That changes the relationship dramatically. Before, food companies could defer questions about their practices to GMA; now, each company is forced to take on an individualized public-facing role. This will extend to lobbying as well. Companies will likely have to make lobbying decisions on their own—which means industry watchers and health advocacy groups will be better able to keeps tabs on the agendas each company is pushing.

The ostensible end of GMA ups the ante on food-company accountability considerably, giving consumers a front-row seat to learn how the makers of their food really feel about the issues—transparency, sustainability, food waste, healthfulness—they profess to prioritize.