A year after America’s powerful food lobby began to implode, four of the world’s largest food companies are launching an association of their own.
The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, unveiled Thursday by the U.S. divisions of Danone, Mars, Nestle and Unilever, says it will fight for progressive food policies — from conservation programs to prominent nutrition labels — that have long been eschewed by major food-makers.
In doing so, the new alliance is likely to tangle with the mighty and well-moneyed Grocery Manufacturers Association, which Mars, Nestle, Unilever and seven other major firms abandoned amid high-profile philosophical disagreements in 2017.
But with combined annual revenue of more than $200 billion, the four companies in the new alliance — responsible for such well-known brands as Dannon yogurt, Snickers candy bars and Hellman’s mayonnaise — could prompt other food-makers to foreground nutrition and sustainability.
Analysts say it’s the latest evidence of the impact of changing consumer tastes on the global food business.
“We truly believe consumers want this, and they vote with every purchase,” said Mariano Lozano, the chief executive of Danone North America.
“We are reaching a moment when what makes business sense and what is the right thing to do come together,” he added.
The alliance will lobby in five policy areas that it says are of interest to modern consumers: product transparency, nutrition, the environment, food safety and a positive workplace for food and agriculture workers. The four companies say they have coordinated on these issues in the past, and view the formalized alliance as a means to more aggressively petition lawmakers and regulators.
The group is urging the Food and Drug Administration to advance the rollout of new Nutrition Facts panels, first proposed under the Obama administration, which more prominently highlight added sugar and calorie information. It will also back a federal plan, long fought by industry groups, for a phased reduction of sodium in packaged food products.
The companies also weighed in on the forthcoming labels for genetically modified ingredients, asking regulators to apply the rules to a wider range of oils and sweeteners.
The group has lobbied farm bill lawmakers to streamline the application process for a popular farm conservation program, and says it will also fight for water quality and soil health projects, renewable energy initiatives and emission-reduction efforts, including 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.
“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,” the group said in a statement.
Such positions aren’t merely good public relations, experts say: They’re also good business. America’s top processed food companies lost 4 percent of their market share between 2011 and 2016, according to the Dutch firm Rabobank.
Consumers have increasingly turned to products they believe are healthier or produced in more sustainable ways, said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor who studies the food industry. Embracing those goals may also help Nestle, Mars, Unilever and Danone differentiate themselves from other large food companies.
Several of the alliance’s stated positions already differ sharply from those of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which spent $2.4 million lobbying in 2017 and has for more than 100 years been the unified voice of food-makers.
While GMA supported an update to the Nutrition Facts Panel, for instance, it criticized the inclusion of new “added sugar” information. The group later petitioned FDA to delay the rollout of the labels, over the vocal protests of Mars and several other member companies that had already begun using them.
“It’s a positive sign that four of the largest food companies in the U.S. recognize we need a new way forward,” said Michele Simon, the executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association and a former public health lawyer who researched the food lobby. “I think it’s responsive to the shift in consumer interests in a way the old guard of Big Food hasn’t been.”
But longtime critics of the food industry, including Simon and Nestle, say they won’t full-throatedly endorse it until they see what it accomplishes.
The new alliance is starting small: Its skeleton staff will include employees from Nestle, Unilever, Mars and Danone, plus a handful of outside consultants. That will make it a fraction of the size of GMA, which still counts Coca Cola, Pepsi and Mondelez among its members. (GMA's incoming president, Geoff Freeman, said in a statement he was “eager to meet with all current and past GMA members to listen to their perspectives” and “it has been my consistent experience that industries are strongest when working together.”)
NYU’s Nestle said she also wants to see how the four companies address more inconvenient environmental and public health policies, such as limits on bottling water from national forests or mandated, front-of-package nutrition labeling. Those policies could potentially threaten their bottom lines — an issue Danone's Lozano said his company did not face with its current efforts around sustainability.
“Let’s give them credit for going after the low-hanging fruit first,” Nestle said. “But the real question will be what they do next.”