- Campbell CEO Denise Morrison told investors on Wednesday the soup icon would leave the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group representing the food and beverage industry, at the end of 2017.
- Speaking at the annual investor day at the company's Camden, New Jersey headquarters, she said the food manufacturer's decision to leave was "not a financial decision" but one that was driven by the company's "purpose and ... principles" of being forthcoming with consumers — especially millennials — who are interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it's raised.
- “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,” she told the audience. "We had the experience of finding ourselves at odds with some of the positions."
During her tenure as CEO, Morrison has positioned Campbell as a go-to destination for consumers looking to purchase fresher, local products with a simpler roster of ingredients people know and view as healthy. During her presentation this week before investors, Morrison said the food marketplace is changing much faster than she or many in the industry initially expected. As proof, she pointed to the growth of discounters Lidl and Aldi, Amazon's $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods and the rapid expansion of meal kits such as Blue Apron in the marketplace.
"In this environment, companies and brands must differentiate themselves or risk extinction," she said.
As part of its efforts to improve the ingredient content of its legacy products while expanding its roster of new brands — largely through acquisitions — Campbell has taken a vow of transparency that at times seems at odds with others in the food industry.
In January 2016, Campbell was the first major company to tell consumers which of its products contained genetically modified ingredients by printing it on the label. For its part, the Grocery Manufacturers Association has backed the SmartLabel project, which can tell consumers a host of information about a product — including if it contains genetically modified ingredients — by scanning a QR code on the package with their smartphones. An estimated 30,000 products will be part of the program by the end of 2017, according to the organization.
Campbell also plans to comply with the Food and Drug Administration's new nutrition facts panel by the original July 2018 deadline, even though the timetable was recently delayed by the agency. When the delay was announced last month, GMA applauded the decision, saying "the fast-approaching compliance deadline was virtually impossible to meet without the needed final guidance" from the FDA.
In a statement responding to Campbell's decision to leave the organization, spokesman Roger Lowe defended GMA's work, citing its role in helping enact the national GMO labeling law last summer, and its partnership with the Food Marketing Institute earlier this year to help decrease consumer confusion about product date labels.
“We are always sorry when a member company decides to leave our trade association, which happens from time to time for a range of reasons," Lowe said in an email to Food Dive. "GMA’s membership levels have remained steady in recent years, with new members joining and some reductions through things such as industry mergers and acquisitions."
GMA currently has about 250 members, he said. Lowe did not respond to a question whether other large companies also were considering leaving the group.
It's difficult to gauge the impact of one major company leaving GMA, but it does highlight the growing fissure that can occur in food and other sectors where a company's interests may differ from those of the trade group organized to lobby on the industry's behalf. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of broader business community, has seen Mars, Unilever, Apple and Nike leave, with others considering doing the same, after differing with the group on issues such as climate change, according to a recent Washington Post story.
For GMA, the defection of Campbell, while a big loss, is unlikely to damage its clout in Washington. A bigger concern for the organization would be the departure of more high-profile companies, a move that could signal to the organization that its views on hot-button issues is no longer resonating with the very companies it is hired to represent.