Day 1 Recap: PLMA Virtual Washington Conference

Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
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The Private Label Manufacturers Association kicked off its two-day PLMA Virtual Washington Conference with a series of discussions that tackled some of the biggest topics in the industry. Four speakers discussed everything from COVID-19's impact on supply chain and food safety to the upcoming election and regulatory updates. 

PLMA closed out the day with the launch of, an informative site dedicated to the upcoming PLMA Live virtual event Feb. 1-5, which replaces the canceled Private Label Trade Show that had been slated for November. The new site was introduced at the end of day one of the PLMA Virtual Washington Conference.

The day's speakers and sessions began with Amy Walter, national editor, The Cook Political Report, with an election briefing, and was followed by Dr. Susan Mayne, director, center for food safety and applied nutrition, FDA, with an update from the organization. The last two sessions were from Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who discussed trade relations with China, and Nada Sanders, professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University, who covered vulnerabilities in the supply chain.

Some key industry highlights from the back-to-back sessions held via Zoom include:

What’s healthy? 
Mayne of the FDA said the organization is currently looking to update the definition of the word “healthy,” when manufacturers use the claim on products. The FDA is looking at ways produce manufacturers are using the claim on their packaging and whether a symbol from the FDA to put on packaging that certifies a product as healthy could work. Mayne said the FDA found consumers trust the agency as a symbol and that a label could motivate food suppliers to develop more nutritious foods.

The idea of the label was shared as part of Mayne’s discussion on the FDA’s “nutrition innovation strategy.” She said there’s concern that 70% of the country’s population is considered overweight and 40% considered obese, which is leading into more chronic illnesses. She also highlighted the FDA’s campaign around a new Nutrition Facts Label.

The FDA launched a campaign around its new nutrition facts label.

Mayne’s presentation also addressed how the FDA worked alongside other agencies to provide flexibility into regulations as suppliers worked through the supply chain issues during the pandemic. 

She highlighted how the FDA helped to manage the imbalance of food that occurred early on during the pandemic, as food got diverted away from restaurants and hotels and into stores, for example.

The agency is continuing to be a source of information of best practices for suppliers today. As Mayne said, “safe workers equals safe food,” so the pandemic definitely had the FDA working in new ways. One example is how it developed a virtual foreign supplier verification program and since March has reviewed more than 600 foreign suppliers virtually to approve its safety.

Supply chain support
Complementing the discussion of the FDA's focus on supply chain safety, Sanders focused on ways to improve the supply chain in the wake of COVID-19. Sanders discussed why the supply chain was vulnerable during the pandemic, what can companies do right now, and how can companies properly rebuild for the pandemic and future events. Insights shared included:

  • Supply chains need to be less tied to a just-in-time supply chain system; 
  • Lessen the reliance of off-shore partnerships;
  • Have back-up suppliers in place; 
  • Require vital suppliers to develop continuity plans;
  • Know all suppliers throughout the supply chain, citing that 54% of executives don’t have insights beyond their tier one suppliers;
  • Shrink the number of SKUs being produced to focus on high volume, high profit margin; and 
  • Use digital sources to monitor situations but they aren’t the tell-all as COVID-19 isn’t a situation that can be predicated.

Sanders also said companies should prepare for soaring food sales for the holiday season, with more shoppers staying home. She said Walmart is overriding its algorithms to build in extra food inventory.

Political landscape
\Walter, an editor at The Cook Political Report who also has been featured on "PBS Newshour," discussed the presidential race, sharing polling insights now and how they compared to the previous election. 

On the international front, Kind — who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee — addressed the administration’s tariffs with China and their impact on farming and manufacturers. He urged for a bipartisan-birthed broader trade agreement such as the previously attempted Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.