Mars executive reveals more of Sustainable Food Policy Alliance plans
The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance that Mars Inc., Nestlé USA, Danone North America, and Unilever have founded wants to “drive policy” and grow, but not become another large trade association with big dues, a key member of the board said on Oct. 10.
The formation of the alliance has perplexed many other lobbyists because it seems focused on policies that respond to consumer concerns such as added sugars, genetic modification and sustainability that other companies have found difficult to address, but it has not established the usual Washington office, staff and lobbying operation that is big enough to have an impact.
Lobbyists for the four companies had reached the conclusion that they wanted “to stop having debates within the food industry and start moving forward,” Brad Figel, a vice president of public affairs at Mars Inc. and a governing board member of the alliance, said at an event former Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan organized at Arizona State University’s Washington campus to launch the new Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems.
Figel did not mention any specific conflicts with other food companies, but Merrigan noted that all four companies had dropped out of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the traditional food industry lobbying group.
In his presentation, Figel said that on the issue of the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients that the Agriculture Department is developing, the alliance is “working hard to make sure those labels are robust and consumer-friendly.”
The labeling of genetically modified organisms was one of the issues with which GMA struggled, with some members opposed to labeling and others backing it as a way to satisfy consumers.
Figel, who worked for the Senate Finance Committee and at Nike before he joined Mars in 2011, noted that the Obama administration in which Merrigan served had “a regulatory environment” that got the companies “started” on issues such as obesity and climate change.
The current environment in Washington is “anti-regulatory,” he said, but “the issues don’t change.”
Figel said the four companies weighed in individually with the Environmental Protection Agency on the Trump administration’s carbon plan last year, and worked together to lobby Congress on climate change and the administration on the GMO labeling issue.
The alliance also wants to stop the Trump administration from going backwards on some of the policies that the Obama administration put in place, he added.
He also said the members of the alliance believe the Food and Drug Administration under Trump is serious about nutrition policy.
Figel noted that Mars, which has backed labeling for added sugars and advocates people eating less sugar, is known as a confectionary company but is now in the pet food, veterinary services and rice processing businesses.
“Our business is fundamentally changing,” he said.
While Merrigan focused on what is going on in agriculture outside Washington, Figel said the four companies want to be innovative, but “can’t do it without changing policy. We can’t do it without a framework of government support.”
A lot of companies are working on policies on climate change, their supply chains, and how they work with their farmers, but they are not lobbying, Figel said.
“I am very excited about the focus of this — taking four strong companies, using our power of the market … to drive reform,” he added.
Figel said the Glover Park Group, a public affairs firm, “is helping us think through this,” but the alliance does not have an office with a staff.
“We are lean and mean on purpose, we do not want to be another trade association with large dues. Our intent is to grow but not to become a large trade association.”
Fifty percent of the alliance’s effort will be “to create forums to bring in people with different perspectives,” Figel said, mentioning that the Swette Center may be one of those forums.
“That doesn’t mean we will do everything we want to do,” he said. ❖