WASHINGTON — With one eye on global issues and another focused on local policy, Cal Dooley is seeing Grocery Manufacturers Association into its second century.
In an interview with SN on the occasion of GMA's 100th birthday, Dooley, president and chief executive officer, said the mission of GMA remains the same as ever even as new battlefronts were opening around the world and close to home.
“What I think is rather remarkable as you look throughout the history of GMA, is that our mission has been very consistent: It's been how can the association play a role to ensure our industry can continue to provide consumers with the high quality and sameness of the products we produce,” Dooley said. “We aspire to be not only as effective as we are dealing with issues on the federal level in Washington, we need to be effective in every state in the nation, and we need the ability to effectively represent the industry in the international arena.”
A century ago, GMA came together to address the nation's food safety concerns in the wake of Upton Sinclair's novel “The Jungle,” which addressed corruption and conditions in the meatpacking industry, Dooley said. GMA's actions led to reform and to the establishment of the Pure Food Act and the Food and Drug Administration.
Today, Dooley said, GMA's century of advocacy has helped its member companies to practice — and has generated public policy to support — high standards of food safety. But changes in the global economy have brought new demands to its members and elevated the level of scrutiny around food safety that GMA must address in its second century.
“We acknowledge that we've seen modest changes in the last decade. The forces of globalization are changing the way we are sourcing a lot of products, and that is bringing new demands on the industry and on regulatory agencies,” Dooley said. “So when you look at a lot of the highly publicized recent incidents, affecting the toy industry, and food safety in products like spinach, that has heightened the public's awareness and is probably creating an environment that is demanding the industry really step up and demonstrate the additional measures and actions they are willing to implement to further enhance the safety of our food, beverage and consumer products.”
Specifically, Dooley pointed to the “Four Pillars” policy proposal GMA released last year advocating a public-private partnership to address imported food safety. The policy, Dooley said, advocates prevention in concert with an enhanced ability to quickly detect and address public health threats. It calls on manufacturers and foreign suppliers to meet new safety requirements and on the FDA to step up its resources. Dooley said he was encouraged to see elements of GMA's advocacy — including its call for increased FDA funding — introduced in Congress this year.
“Over the past few months, we have been working with our member companies on a comprehensive plan that can really define the public-private partnership that will enhance the safety of the products we are manufacturing and putting on grocery store shelves,” Dooley said. “Just a month ago, components of that were introduced as legislation by Congress in a bipartisan effort that really embodies the Four Pillars. It requires every manufacturer to have a written plan at preventative controls and requires every importer of products or ingredients to have a quality assurance plan.
“Also, the industry understands that we could probably further enhance consumer confidence in our products by giving FDA mandatory recall authority. The industry has really stepped up and provided some concrete, specific solutions that will make a difference in terms of every company — small, medium or large — and regardless of what product they are producing, to be sure they are employing the best practices available,” he said.
Closer to home, Dooley said he hopes to make GMA more effective in dealing with policy on a state and local level, where threats to its member companies' businesses have become increasingly onerous.
“We are facing a different environment in terms of where the greatest challenges are occurring,” Dooley said. “Fifty years ago, almost all the legislative and regulatory concerns of the industry were really focused on Congress and on the regulatory agencies in Washington, D.C. When you look today, so many of the challenges the industry faces are in state capitals and even local municipalities that are promulgating regulations and proposals that could potentially have a significant impact on our industry.”
Many of these local issues typically involve communities taking precautionary “European-style” approaches to chemical or contaminant issues, Dooley said. GMA advocates a “sound, scientific, fact-based approach that ensures that consumers are being taken care of in a responsible manner,” he said.
“We're very effective here in Washington, D.C. But in terms of what we're aspiring to be, we're expanding our capabilities throughout the country. We now have three different field offices in different regions where we're focused on state and local issues, but we have more work to do to build this political infrastructure. We need to be almost in every state in the nation.”
The U.S. economy, in the meantime, has made this a trying time for many of GMA's member companies, Dooley acknowledged. Product manufacturers, he said, are responding to higher commodity, packaging and transportation costs by striving for higher productivity, but he said the competitive nature of the industry offers little alternative but to pass higher costs along the chain.
“I think what you're seeing now are price increases getting passed along in a fairly uniform manner. There's just not much give in the system,” Dooley said.
Like some retailers, manufacturers could find benefits in the tough times, Dooley added, especially as at-home consumption rises and eating out declines. “We're seeing more families preparing meals at home. That creates opportunities for increased sales in Center Store.”
To that end, Dooley said it is critical that retailers and manufacturers work together to maximize the opportunity to make a sale. GMA, in partnership with a consulting group, last year launched a study of what drives shopping decisions at the store level, focusing on defining the opportunity around “shopper marketing,” said Stephen Sibert, GMA's senior vice president of industry affairs. This year, the study will extend to measuring the specific ways good companies execute in that space, Sibert said.
According to Dooley, increasingly sophisticated knowledge of shopper behavior is necessary to capture shoppers in a marketplace defined by multiple shopping choices and multiple means of communication. Taking advantage of that knowledge requires new levels of cooperation between retailers and manufacturers.
“One of the things that have changed in the last few decades in the industry is that today there is a greater level of collaboration between retailers and manufacturers than we've ever seen in history. They are committed to find new ways to work together, and enhance efficiency and value throughout the chain. That will provide greater value to the end consumer.
“When I was a child 30 or 40 years ago, we watched three network stations. So if you wanted to advertise a product you had three choices — that was their delivery system to educate consumers. Today you have a much more diffused media and information marketplace, and it's beginning to manifest itself in how our companies and retailers are disseminating information to consumers,” he continued. “That's where this new spirit of working together is so important.”