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GMA defectors Mars, Nestlé, Danone and Unilever form a new alliance

Sustainable Food Policy Alliance plans to support progressive policies, including sodium reduction

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Consumer advocates are not normally known for cheering on the food industry, but on Thursday (July 12) they welcomed the arrival of a new food industry trade group, created by four industry giants: Mars, Nestlé, Unilever and Danone.

The four companies announced the launch of the new group, the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance (SFPA), on Thursday (July 12), stating that the alliance will advocate for progressive food policies, such as sodium reduction, and expanded use of the new and updated Nutrition Facts labels.

Created by three of the industry giants who last year made waves by announcing they were leaving the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)  – Unilever, Mars and Nestlé – the new group is likely to change dynamics in food industry representation, which has for years been dominated by GMA, said Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

That is good news for both consumers and businesses, as the group is likely for the first time to give industry an alternative voice, different from the conservative positions that GMA has backed in recent years, Wootan told IEG Policy.

“It shows the continued fracture of the food industry,” Wootan said. “When I first started working at CSPI 25 years ago, it seemed like the food industry was almost always united in their opposition to what we did.”

Created in 1907, GMA has been a powerful voice defending the interests of more than 200 food companies, including major players such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Mondelez. And even though it shared the food lobbying space with the National Food Products Association until 2007 (when the two groups merged to create today’s GMA), the two did not really represent diverging positions, Wootan suggested.

But progressive food makers like Mars, Nestlé, Danone and Unilever, have started shaking that status quo in recent years, Wootan suggested. And with the creation of the new group, some consumer advocates hope the change might make it easier to introduce consumer-driven changes in the food industry.

“What happened over the last few years, more and more we’ve been able to work with various companies on different policies and there’s been this group of Mars and Nestlé and Danone and Unilever who we’ve regularly been able to work with in a constructive way,” she said.

“There is still more work to be done, but these companies are well ahead of most other companies, which seem to be ignoring consumer interests and trends and are not doing enough to support healthy eating,” Wootan added. “These companies have been supporting the FDA sodium reduction targets, where GMA has not. They also have supported added sugar labeling and a daily budget for added sugars on Nutrition Facts and GMA has not.”

A new vision for industry

Companies in the new alliance have already suggested what their goals for the future will be. In a joint statement Thursday, the four founding members of SFPA indicated they plan to focus on five key areas: improving transparency for consumers; addressing environmental concerns; ensuring the safety and quality of food products; advocating for policies that support healthy nutrition, and advancing policies that promote a strong, diverse, and healthy workplace.

The alliance also plans to advance climate policies that are impactful for the environment, while accounting for the specific business imperatives of supply chains, including farmers, ranchers, and other producers. This will include fighting for efforts and policies that support water quality and soil health, as well as renewable energy and emission reduction, such as the Clean Power Plan and Paris Climate Agreement.

The four companies have already petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency together, urging it to maintain the Clean Power Plan and its goal to slash carbon pollution.

"Each member company has independently proven a willingness to advocate for the long-term interests of the people who farm and supply our raw materials, and people who make and consume our products." - Sustainable Food Policy Alliance

In terms of nutrition, the group’s immediate priority will be addressing nutrition labeling.

“The Alliance supports a comprehensive update of the definition of terms important for people, like 'healthy,' including strong, science-based regulations on how these terms can be used on food packages and in marketing,” the group said in a statement. “The updates will help consumers make better choices for themselves and their families.”

According to the alliance website, the group also plans to support FDA’s new nutrition innovation strategy, encourage timely implementation of the new Nutrition Facts panel and assist the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs in providing children with access to nutritious food.

The group said it intends to stand by FDA “in voluntary, industry-led efforts to reduce sodium in our food supply, and we will oppose any efforts to ignore evidence-based science on sodium reduction.”

“We firmly agree with FDA that reducing sodium levels can be a powerful public health action to reduce blood pressure, a leading risk for heart disease. We seek to ensure that sodium reduction occurs across the food supply,” the alliance states on its website.

The alliance has also expressed support for FDA’s plans to modernize existing standards of identity, as well as for encouraging consumption of smaller portions and strengthening voluntary, industry-wide standards on responsible marketing of food to families and children.

These goals are not new to the four founding members of the group, who already individually have made efforts for improvements in those areas, the alliance suggested.

“We make foods to support healthy, balanced lives, and we believe policies that impact the business of food should support people’s health, too,” the group states on its website. “Collectively, our members are constantly improving the nutritional profile of our products, reducing the amount of saturated fat, sodium, and sugar in our products, as well as increasing macronutrients, including essential vitamins and minerals. Each of us has set goals to do more.”

The four companies said they are already working on efforts that will increase nutrient density, lowering calorie counts per serving size and updating packaging to contain smaller portions.

"The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance was founded on the principle that food companies can and should be doing more to lead and drive positive policy action for the people who buy and enjoy the foods and beverages we make, the people who supply them, and the planet on which we all rely,” said leaders of the four founding members of the alliance. 

"As an Alliance, we commit first and foremost to leading by example. Each member company has independently proven a willingness to advocate for the long-term interests of the people who farm and supply our raw materials, and people who make and consume our products.”

All four companies behind the alliance are former members of GMA. While Dannon left the group in 2011, the other three companies were part of a significant exodus of food makers from the group that began with the departure of Campbell’s Soup in July 2017. Nestlé left the group about three months later, while Mars and Unilever announced in December 2017 that they would not renew their GMA membership for the following year.  Other companies that left the trade group in the same period include Hershey and Tyson Foods.

While the companies did not explain in detail what prompted their departure, consumer advocates have speculated that the rift was caused by an ideological divide over important nutrition issues, such as mandatory added sugars disclosure, voluntary sodium reduction in food products and labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In 2015, for instance, most food companies opposed FDA’s proposal for disclosure of percent of daily value of added sugars, Nestlé and Mars were among the very few in the industry to support the proposed change. The majority of GMA members, however, opposed the idea, which led the trade group for a first time to submit diverging comments to FDA. In order to reflect the views of all its members, GMA ended up presenting FDA with a majority and minority positions on the issue.

GMA’s overt opposition to mandatory GMO labeling has also been seen as a breaking point for companies.

“These companies are more in tune with consumer interest in healthy eating,” said Wootan, who noted that all four members of the new alliance have adopted policies to restrict marketing to children. In 2007, CSPI also worked with Mars, Nestle and Dannon in effort aimed at cleaning up junk foods in schools.

“These companies have been more responsive to consumer interests,” Wootan said. 

“I think they grew tired of fighting with the member companies at GMA and just decided that GMA was not serving their interests,” she added. “GMA has grown out of touch with the American public. Americans are interested in healthy eating. They want clear, transparent information on products. And they want companies to support their good intentions towards eating well. They want companies to help them, not hinder them in their efforts to eat well.”

After a tough year in 2017, GMA has started reinventing itself, particularly after the group’s long time leader Pamela Bailey announced her retirement in February. The group’s incoming president and CEO Geoff Freeman, who will officially step into the group’s top position on Aug. 1, said Thursday he was “energized” by the opportunity “to build a compelling agenda reflective of the crucial role our industry plays in the world today.”

“I’m eager to meet with all current and past GMA members to listen to their perspectives and outline my approach to achieving industry growth, delivering enhanced member value and building a unified industry,” Freeman said in a statement. “It has been my consistent experience that industries are strongest when working together.”

CSPI is not the only consumer advocacy group that has welcomed the creation of the new alliance. The Partnership for Healthier America, a foundation co-founded and chaired by the former first lady Michele Obama, also hailed the creation of the alliance.

And Thomas Gremillion, food policy director at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), told IEG Policy he hopes the new alliance will expand to include more companies and advocate for more issues. He also expressed hope that the new trade group will put pressure on GMA to reevaluate its positions or on other companies to “jump ship.”

“I think this group’s arrival shines a light on the 'lowest common denominator' that GMA and lot of other trade groups unfortunately tend to represent. Rather than serving as a forum for companies to share best practices and align food companies around progressive goals that will serve the public interest, GMA has catered to the bottom dwellers,” he said in an email on Thursday.

“Where GMA takes extreme positions on behalf of bad actors — for example, seeking to delay implementation of the new nutrition facts panel label for companies that don’t want their customers to understand what’s in their products — responsible companies should speak up,” he said.

But while advocates are pleased with the goals the new alliance has set for itself, they also suggested they want to work with the new alliance on other nutrition priorities, including continuing to clean junk foods from schools and pushing forward with efforts to remove foods such as soda and candy from checkout aisles in stores.

“I think this is a good start, but there is a lot of work to be done to make real improvements for consumers and advance the public interest.” Gremillion said. “On food safety, for example, will there be specific commitments on traceability? On nutrition, will this include front-of-package labeling?”

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