Member exodus prompting change at G.M.A.

by Jay Sjerven
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Jay Sjerven

WASHINGTON — Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Ark., and Unilever, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., in December announced they will not renew their memberships in the Grocery Manufacturers Association in 2018. Tyson and Unilever will join four other major food companies — Campbell Soup Co., Nestle, Dean Foods and Mars — that earlier this year announced they, too, will leave the G.M.A. after 2017.

Some of the companies departing the G.M.A., such as Campbell Soup, Nestle and Unilever, increasingly found themselves at odds with the association on several issues, including how to approach G.M.O. labeling, the mandatory labeling of “added sugars” and voluntary sodium reduction. More broadly, there were differences on how best to provide the transparency in food product ingredients and nutrition increasingly demanded by consumers.

It was uncertain whether the announced departures marked the beginning or the culmination of an exodus from the G.M.A. on the eve of its 110th anniversary year. The association has deep roots in the food industry, and all trade associations face the need to adjust to changing times. G.M.A. executives acknowledged the need to “reinvent and evolve” the trade association.

In statements provided to Politico, Unilever and Tyson Foods explained their reasons for leaving the G.MA. Unilever said, “We review and assess our trade association memberships each year and decided not to renew our membership in 2018 as we increase our focus on advocacy aligned with delivering our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.”

Unilever launched its Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 in order “to grow our business, while decoupling our environmental footprint from our growth and increasing our social impact.”

Tyson told Politico, “While we respect the work of the organization (G.M.A.), our company is moving toward a more global discussion about the future of food.”

At least six major food companies will not renew their memberships in the Grocery Manufacturers Association in 2018.
 

Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., in July announced its decision to leave the G.M.A., the first of the six companies to do so. Denise M. Morrison, president and chief executive officer, said during a July 19 corporate analysts meeting, “As we continue to evolve as a purpose-driven company, many of our beliefs have diverged from the rest of the food industry and from our trade association.”

Ms. Morrison elaborated, “Our purpose has led us to take principled positions about the most pressing issues facing the food industry. One of the problems with having principles is you have to live by them. And as a result, at times, we find ourselves with philosophical differences with many of our peers in the food industry on important issues. For example, viewing G.M.O.s through the lens of our purpose caused us to think very differently about transparency, and we changed our position on G.M.O. labeling. It was a popular decision in the eyes of consumers and customers. Another recent issue is the delay in the implementation of the Food and Drug Administration’s new Nutrition Facts Panel. While the F.D.A. has agreed to delay implementation, we’re continuing to strive to meet the original deadline of July 2018.”

Ms. Morrison added that “when you think about it, you step back, it (G.M.A.) is composed of mostly very large food companies and not a lot of small companies, and our philosophy seems to be aligning more with the smaller companies.”

In October, Campbell Soup joined the Plant Based Foods Association, becoming that association’s largest member.

Mars, Inc., McLean, Va., in a statement on its leaving the G.M.A., said, “At this time, we believe we can more effectively drive our business objectives and meaningful progress for our categories and consumers by working with other like-minded companies and through other sector-specific trade associations and collaborations.”

Roger Lowe, executive vice-president of strategic communications at the G.M.A., told Food Business News, “G.M.A. and its board are continuing our work to build the new G.M.A. for the future to meet the needs of longtime and new member companies and of consumers. The food industry is facing significant disruption and is evolving — and so is G.M.A. We all will continue to evolve and change at an even faster pace. We are always sorry when member companies decide to leave and hope to work with them on issues of mutual interest in the future.

“Companies — and G.M.A. — are all different today than they were five years ago, three years ago or even a year ago — and all will be different in a year from now. We have been actively working with member companies for a number of months on ways to reinvent and evolve G.M.A. as our industry evolves.”

Mr. Lowe noted that many food brands represented by the G.M.A. have been around for more than 100 years because their companies evolved to meet changing consumer needs.

“Not surprisingly, each company evolves differently, and sometimes that evolution is seen in their public policy positions,” he said. “G.M.A. has been around for more than 100 years — 110 years in 2018 — and as a member-driven organization, we are evolving along with our member companies.”

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