WASHINGTON - A union of the two major packaged goods lobbying groups would strengthen their members, particularly as they face a swell of political opposition over food safety and obesity issues, the head of one of the organizations said.
"If you look at our public policy agenda today, and the complexity of dealing with Congress, we need all the political help we can muster," said C. Manly Molpus, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The GMA is poised to merge with the Food Products Association, both based here, on Jan. 1, 2007, pending approval of the GMA's board and both groups' memberships. The GMA board is expected to vote on the union at its annual Executive Conference, which takes place at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., June 9-12.
Of high concern to the industry are the pending National Uniformity for Food Act, which would establish a single set of national labeling standards; a federal bill to raise school food nutritional standards; and a federal report calling on marketers to create more healthful foods.
"We need to build a lot of support, particularly from back home, to pass that bill," Molpus, speaking in a pre-conference interview, said of the Uniformity Act. "And the whole issue around obesity and marketing and advertising practices is certainly growing in importance and something we've been addressing and something we have to be very creative and aggressive in addressing in the future."
Molpus said the industry has an "outstanding track record" addressing the obesity problem, via product reformulations, heightened self-regulation standards and promotion of physical activity.
"We think we've played a large role in helping to lower those obesity rates, particularly with the way we've changed product formulations," he said. "Look at how quickly we've removed trans fats from the system, and how many products have calorie reductions or various types of fat reductions, and where we've been able to do it, sodium reduction."
GMA spokesman Sean McBride clarified Molpus' comment in a subsequent interview, saying that the association doesn't claim that its efforts have actually lowered obesity rates, but that the GMA, along with other industry stakeholders, is taking such steps in the hopes they'll have the effect of lowering the rates. "It's not at a point where anybody could take credit for moving numbers at this point," he said.
Molpus also took pride in other industry initiatives that promote the importance of physical fitness among kids.
"I think the industry has been very proactive and very positive in addressing this issue, and we've gotten a fair share of recognition that we've been a positive factor in addressing the problem," he said.
A merged GMA and FPA association also would give GMA members access to FPA's chemical and food safety research labs and let FPA members participate in GMA's supply chain efficiency initiatives.
"It truly unites the industry. It gives us a common vision and common agenda and the resources to accomplish that agenda," Molpus said.
He plans to retire Dec. 31, after which FPA President and CEO Cal Dooley would lead the combined organization.
Also high on GMA members' agenda are ways to grow their businesses, through product innovations, better consumer insights and promotion of healthful products.
Molpus said a recent GMA study helped to focus people on the need to invigorate the center of the store. "To a degree, the Center Store seemed lost there for a while, as there was so much attention given to the perimeter. But we do think we're seeing retailers now with more focus on Center Store and working with us on new innovations and Center Store merchandising and Center Store promotion." New packaging and use of technology also are helping make the grocery aisles more exciting.
In other activities related to the Center Store, the GMA has formed a group of members to look at ways to improve the supply chain. The group is studying ways manufacturers can customize their offerings to retailers without sacrificing efficiency.
"There are a lot of basic areas of our business today, unsaleables and out-of-stocks, where we need to do better," Molpus said. "More and more, we're doing customization, and we need to be sure that we're doing it in a way that meets the retailers needs and does it efficiently."
The drive for efficiency has led associations like GMA and FPA to merge, as well as rethink their operations, as the Food Marketing Institute recently did when it said it was considering switching its exhibit to every other year from annually, and holding an enhanced educational event in the alternate years.
Molpus said that decision reflects a need for associations to demonstrate their value. GMA's done that by having speakers who are top experts in their field and sessions that are relevant and useful at its Greenbrier conference, and staging other, one- or two-day programs with an intense focus on a single subject, he said.
"I think companies are expecting to see a [return on investment] from their association investment," he said. "I think companies are also wanting to assure that their own human resource investment in associations is paying off."