Opinion: The Grocery Manufacturing Association is melting down

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Dave Dickey

During the third quarter of this year – the Grocery Manufacturers Association spent nearly $600,000 on lobbying Capitol Hill.

In the third quarter of 2015, the lobbying group spent nearly $1.8 million stumping for issues such as food labeling, bird flu and food safety.

But it may soon lose its power.

The association was founded in 1908 to lobby anyone who will listen to the needs and concerns of its members, including some of the world’s largest food manufacturing companies –  Campbell’s, Nestle, Mars, Tyson, Unilever, and Dean Foods.

Except…all six companies have now opted out of the group, splintering the food lobby and its influence on Capitol Hill.

Campbell’s Soup led the way last summer, announcing it was leaving the association over a bitter fight regarding the labeling of genetically modified organisms on processed food packages.

If the Grocery Manufacturers Association ceases to exist at some point in the future we probably will be able to point to its fight with Washington state as the beginning of the end.

It has been the association’s iron-clad, non-negotiable, position that manufactures should NEVER – full stop – be required to tell consumers on food labels that the products they produce contain GMOs.

And the group has been more than willing to break laws to keep that from happening.

Like it did in 2013 when it secretly funneled millions of dollars to lobbyists to oppose Washington state Initiative 522, a measure that would have required mandatory labeling of genetically modified organism foods.

The secret slush fund ran afoul of Washington state’s Public Disclosure Act which requires transparency in campaign contributions. It didn’t take Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson long to catch wind of the scheme and file a lawsuit to force the GMA to come clean.

At the time Ferguson cited a damning memo from GMA chief executive officer Pamela Bailey that created revealed a Defense of Brand Strategy Account” to oppose Initiative 522 and to “better shield companies from attack” for opposing the consumer initiative.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association eventually had to disclose the companies contributing to the slush fund and pay Washington state $18 million dollars in fines –  the largest campaign finance penalty in U.S. history.

Thus the GMA has been branded as a trade group which puts self interest ahead of ethics and is willing to knowingly break laws to advance it positions.  OK. Got it.

Is this the sort of folk you would want your agricultural company associated with?

But that’s not all.  Consumer tastes are rapidly changing.

GMOs, additives, dyes, and high fructose corn syrup are out.

All things natural and organic are in (#dumpthejunk).

Campbell Soup – owner of V8, Prego, and Pepperidge Farm –  was an early adopter of the new normal, committing in January of 2016 to label any of its products that contain GMOs before ultimately saying “So long!” to the  Grocery Manufacturers Association.

That sent a ripple through the food industry in general and the grocery association in particular.

But Nestle – the world’s biggest food manufacture – clean blew a hole through the Grocery Manufacturers Association when it announced it is opting out at the end of the year and declared its intent to move its U.S. HQ to the Washington D.C. Area, presumably to better lobby on its own behalf.

GMA executive vice president of strategic communications Roger Lowe tried to put a happy spin on Nestle’s departure noting “Nestle’s participation in GMA will be missed, and we hope there will be a time when they will rejoin us.”

Uh….not.

Campbell’s Soup and Nestle has been quickly followed by Mars leaving the GMA association in November, Tyson and Unilever this month, and Dean Food all but publicly confirming rumors it was saying goodbye as well.

What these mega ag companies have concluded is that the Grocery Manufacturers Association demands millions of dollars in annual dues for essentially nothing in return.

It’s guaranteed more companies will follow Campbell’s, Nestle, Dean Food, Tyson, Unilever and Mars out the GMA door.

For its part, the association has hired Boston Consulting Group to give the trade group a Barbie makeover.

Officials at its headquarters are calling the effort “GMA Reinvention” in the hope, as Lowe maintains, to provide a “greater focus on identifying and addressing emerging issues facing the industry.”

Well that sounds all fine and dandy, but right now the revolving door at the Grocery Manufacturers Association is death by a thousand cuts.

And I must say that’s not a bad thing.

Millennials are reshaping the market place with their grocery choices.

Imagine a food trade group that champions the shift in consumer food demand, including not just the identification of GMO products, but actually finds or develops non-GMO supply options for food production.

I just don’t think GMA is up to that challenge.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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