Dean Foods is giving up its membership in the Grocery Manufacturers Association, according to Politico. It is the third large food manufacturer this year to make that decision, following recent similar decisions by Campbell Soup and Nestle.
The publication said the departures are evidence of a growing fissure within the popular food lobbying group amid changes at grocery stores and struggles taking place at large CPG companies as millennials and other consumers seek healthier products with a recognizable list of ingredients.
Politico reported that complacency and a lack of leadership at GMA are also to blame, citing interviews with current and former member companies, former staff and other industry leaders in Washington, D.C. Roger Lowe, GMA's executive vice president of strategic communications, criticized the story as relying "heavily on nameless sources and former GMA staff who are out of touch with the organization’s work in recent years or who are eager to advance their own personal agenda."
Politico's lengthy article attributed the departure of more industry members as a sign of splintering within the powerful food lobby group over how to respond to consumer trends regarding transparency and clean labeling. But Lowe defended the group's efforts.
Far from being ineffective, Lowe noted in a statement that GMA successfully pressed for a GMO disclosure law, which passed last year. He also cited GMA's work on the Food Safety Modernization Act, SmartLabel and transparency, and food waste reduction as areas where food, beverage and consumer companies all came together.
"The food industry is facing significant disruption and is evolving at an unprecedented pace. There’s no question that companies — and GMA — are all different today than they were five years ago, three years ago or even a year ago — and that we all will continue to evolve and change at a faster pace," Lowe said. "Not surprisingly, each company evolves differently, and sometimes that evolution is seen in their public policy positions. As a member-driven organization, GMA is evolving along with our member companies."
A business association and its membership is a bit like a family united by common causes and interests, so it's not surprising if members choose not to air the dirty laundry about why they're leaving. Both Dean and Nestle have not publicly announced their departures. They may choose to take different policy and organizational directions, but that doesn't mean they want to harm others on the way out, especially when issues of agreement remain despite the points of contention.
It's often difficult to be effective in Washington, D.C., without the clout that a large organization such as GMA can wield. But many companies may be finding it easier and more effective to lobby on their own behalf rather than spend time trying to convince their trade group why it should embrace a specific agenda.
Campbell Soup has indicated where its future lies by joining the Plant Based Food Association. When Campbell announced in July it would leave the organization, CEO Denise Morrison said the decision 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." She said the soup and snack maker's "beliefs have diverged from the rest of the food industry and from our trade association."
It can't be easy for GMA, with approximately 250 members ranging from small to large food, beverage and consumer product companies, to align interests and represent varying positions in a rapidly changing political climate. And with consumer trends shifting so quickly, it takes energy and creative leadership — and perhaps a large crystal ball — to bring people together to accomplish complex legislative goals.
"Companies that get it have said, ‘Why are we paying GMA more than $1 million a year to lobby for things that our brands don’t support?,'" Jeff Nedelman, founder of the public relations firm Strategic Communications, which works with health and wellness brands, and a vice president of communications at GMA during the 1980s and 1990s, told Politico. "To me, it looks like GMA is the dinosaur just waiting to die."
For GMA, losing three high-profile members in short order is a bad sign, and the trade group is undoubtedly working hard behind the scenes to quell any further defections from its ranks. The last thing any lobbying group needs is to be perceived as ineffective and not worth the money. If this happens, further members could leave and the powerful influence the GMA has could be further minimized.