The big Washington food fight
Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, rocked food circles in late October with the news that it was leaving the industry’s most powerful lobbying group in Washington, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, amid disagreements about how to respond to changing consumer tastes.
The departure of a conglomerate that owns thousands of brands — from Hot Pockets to Deer Park water — was the most visible sign yet that the food industry’s reign in Washington is faltering as some companies scramble to adapt to rapidly evolving consumer demands while others are slower to embrace the trends. Long the attack group for large companies like Kraft and General Mills on legislative and regulatory issues, GMA now has members like Nestlé opposing some of its positions.
The splintering of the food lobby has been driven in part by an upheaval at the grocery store, where iconic brands are stagnating as millennials and moms seek healthier and more transparent products. But complacency and a lack of leadership at GMA are also to blame, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former member companies, former staff and other industry leaders in Washington.
In the past year, the trickle of news about member companies deciding to leave GMA appear to be not one-offs, but part of a burgeoning trend.
Six months before Nestlé's decision, Campbell Soup Co., maker of Goldfish crackers and V8 juices, announced it was leaving GMA, in part because the association fought bitterly against mandatory labeling for foods with genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs. In what may have been a contrarian view, Campbell decided to stop fighting and instead embrace GMO labeling early last year, believing that consumers want more information about what's in their food and where it comes from — not less. Both Nestlé and Campbell are leaving the group at the end of the year....MUCH MORE
Other major food companies are also eyeing the door: Dean Foods, the largest dairy company in the country, has quietly decided to leave the association. Several others, including Mars — one of the largest private food companies, which owns swaths of globally recognized brands, from candy to pet food — are considering it.
"Some of these companies are realizing that being more progressive is a good place to be, from a marketing perspective,” said Melissa Musiker, vice president and director of food and nutrition policy at APCO Worldwide, a public relations and consultancy firm. “They get kudos for it."
"In the past, there was protection in numbers — you kind of hunkered down, and to the extent that these companies stuck together, they could win," said Musiker, who worked at GMA as a director on science and nutrition policy from 2009 to 2011.
Nestlé and Mars declined to comment for this story. Campbell Soup Co. also declined to comment on why it publicly split with GMA last summer. A spokesperson for Dean Foods told POLITICO the company was leaving GMA “so we can prioritize and allocate our limited time and resources elsewhere,” and declined to comment further. Some in Washington speculate that Dean Foods left for fiscal reasons amid well-documented financial troubles, and not over an ideological division with GMA.
A permanent shift in consumer tastes...