Most industries in America have a trade organization in Washington, essentially a building full of lawyers and lobbyists who try to nudge Congress in the direction they want. There’s a trade organization for literally everything, and their place in American political life is a complicated one. But one thing nobody quite expected would be a powerful trade organization getting dumped by the people it claims to represent.
And, yet, that’s exactly what’s happening with giant food companies and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. According to Quartz, the GMA has been dumped by ten major food companies, with Campbell’s Soup, Nestle, Dean Foods, Mars, Tyson Foods, Unilever, the Hershey Company, Cargill, the Kraft Heinz Company, and DowDuPont all deciding it was done with the GMA.
Why? Because the GMA’s stances on food labeling didn’t line up with what consumers wanted:
Publicly, the companies that left GMA are mostly vague about their reasons for defection. Privately, though, their executives have complained about disagreements with management, arthritic association bylaws, and a seeming unwillingness to budge on issues. As the lobbyist puts it, rather than trying to evolve with consumer demand, GMA leadership chose instead to be pugnacious about issues like GMO transparency and improved food-package ingredient labeling. “The whole world changed in a five-year period and they don’t realize it,” the lobbyist says.
The problem is fairly straightforward: Consumers didn’t want what the GMA was selling, and the companies it was supposed to represent took notice. Consumers have demanded to know more about what’s in their food, and thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get both detailed information and glaring misinformation about what you eat. Consumers want to know what’s in their food, and as public awareness of food science grows, companies have started clarifying what’s in the package.
Granted, it’s fair to argue that issues like GMO labeling are more complicated and the public needs better education on the topic, but the GMA wanted to block GMO labeling entirely and cram everything onto a QR code called the SmartLabel — which only works on the premise that people in grocery stores will take out their phones, scan a barcode, and Google any ingredient they don’t understand. Needless to say, it’s not terribly popular. Instead, food brands have resorted instead to just putting statements they don’t use GMOs on their products.
As for the giant food conglomerates, they’re not abandoning themselves to the whims of Washington, just hiring their own lobbyists. This has advantages and disadvantages for all sides of the various food debates. If a giant corporation has lobbyists out there, it’s easier to track what they’re advocating for, but it also means there are even more lobbyists to keep tabs on.
The most important point here ultimately may have nothing to do with food, it’s a testament to the power of the purchaser to demand what we want. The GMA’s struggles illustrate that all Americans really have to do is make up their minds and make those minds clear, whether with their wallets or their votes, and even the biggest corporation will follow in the end.