Big 4 tackle policy

In the US, four of the world’s biggest food companies want to change food policy. They have joined forces to form The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance to fight for progressive food policies – from conservation programs to prominent nutrition labels.

Nestle, Mars, and Unilever have turned their back on traditional industry lobbyist the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), along with a number of other large food manufacturers, due to disagreements over the GMA’s ability to evolve with the market and consumer demands.

Large food companies have lost share to competitive and nimble start-ups offering healthier options, touting attributes such as GMO-free and featuring simpler ingredient lists. GMA added to the problem by resisting labelling initiatives aimed at improving transparency. GMA pushed instead for the SmartLabel initiative, that required shoppers to scan QR codes to access nutrition information. It wasn’t embraced by all GMA members while the Center for Food Safety called the idea “non-labeling hiding as labelling”.

The new alliance, which also includes Danone North America, will lobby in five policy areas that it believes are of interest to modern consumers; product transparency, nutrition, the environment, food safety and a positive workplace for food and agriculture workers. While the four companies have coordinated on these issues in the past, with the new alliance believe they can petition lawmakers and regulators more effectively and offer more progressive policies.

Chief executive officer of Danone North America, Mariano Lozano believes greater efforts on nutrition and sustainability are what consumers want, and they will vote with their purchases. “We are reaching a moment when what makes business sense and what is the right thing to do come together.”

In contrast to GMA, the Alliance is urging the Food and Drug Administration to advance the rollout of new Nutrition Facts panels, which will highlight added sugar and calorie information. The group is backing projects aimed at improving soil health and water quality, while also lobbying farm bill lawmakers to make it easier for farmers to apply for conservation programs.

It’s hoped the new approach will be good for business, allowing these companies to differentiate themselves from large competitors and regain market share from brands that are perceived as being healthier, friendlier and more sustainable.

While initial reactions to the new Alliance are positive, others are reserving judgement. New York University professor and food guru Marion Nestle wants to see how the alliance addresses more inconvenient environmental and public health policies, such as limits on bottling water from national forests or mandated, front-of-package nutrition labelling. These issues have the potential to threaten companies’ bottom lines. “Let’s give them credit for going after the low-hanging fruit first,” Nestle said, but said the real question would be what the companies do next.