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Jan Lee headshot

Powerful Food Lobby Loses Big Members Over Shifting Consumer Concerns

By Jan Lee

Membership is changing at the country's largest grocery association, and the shakeup may say a lot about the impact consumers have on their favorite brands.

In October Nestle announced to the Grocery Manufacturers Association that it would be ending its affiliation -- and taking its 8,500 brands with it. According to FoodDive, it had nothing to do with whether the GMA was a strong enough lobbying force. It had to do with listening to consumers.

The governing issue, said Food Dive writer Cathy Siegner "likely stems from differing hot-button policy positions taken by the Swiss food giant and the industry lobbying association."

Although Nestle declined to comment on the story, it's not the first corporation to announce a departure from GMA. Campbell's Soup Company, owner of the popular Swanson, V8 and Pepperidge Farm brands, was more forthright about why it was leaving last July.

It was "not a financial decision" Campbell's CEO Denise Morrison told shareholders at the company's annual investors day event. It was driven by "principles."

"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,” Morrison told the audience.

At the heart of the issue is the genetically modified organism debate, the question of whether to acquiesce to consumers' demands for labeling products that have GMO ingredients. Campbell's is one of a handful of corporations that announced a year ago it would voluntarily label products that had been made with genetic engineering. It's also gone head-to-head in disagreement with the GMA's lobbying against legislation that has supported more transparency on genetically modified processes.

But from the standpoint of a growing list of corporations that are now rethinking their affiliation with the GMA, the real issue is changing consumer tastes. Campbell's and Nestle have both taken positions in recent years that suggest they are listening to consumers more closely. Campbell's remake of its signature line of soups to address greater demand for "fresh" ingredients and Nestle's focus on finding ways to cut energy usage, decrease its carbon footprint and increase its advocacy for environmental concerns may be shaping a new pathway for corporations that have image change in mind.

For Campbell's, a company that like Nestle, made its mark through automation and fast-use products, it led the company to joining the Plant Based Food Association, alongside labels like Tofurky, daiya and Dr. Bronner's.

And they aren't the only GMA members rethinking their affiliation with an organization known for countering popular consumer movements. Dairy producer Dean Foods is on the departure list and Mars, a growing voice in promoting sustainable business methods has just announced its plans to leave this week.

"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," the company said in a statement. Mars had also announced in 2016 that it would implement GMO labeling in response to feedback it was getting from consumers.

For the grocery association, Mars' departure is liable to sting. The corporation, which posted $35 billion in sales this year, is sixth on the Forbes List of America's largest private companies and owns some of the most popular brands on the market in the pet care, fast-food and candy sectors across the world.

Will this growing departure of Big Food companies change the GMA's lobbying stance? It's too early to tell. But it will likely impact the landscape when it comes to the Grocery Manufacturers Association's pull in Washington, where those companies' combined worth spoke volumes when it came to  lobbying efforts.

Still, consumers back home can be assured of one thing: Their opinions do count, because some of the world's biggest brands are definitely listening.

Flickr image: Bodo

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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