Campbell Soup declares support for mandatory GMO labeling, but has it struck a ‘Devil’s bargain’?

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

A mock up of what a can of SpaghettiOs would look like with a GMO label declaration
A mock up of what a can of SpaghettiOs would look like with a GMO label declaration
Campbell Soup has broken ranks with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) on the GMO labeling front and declared its support for the enactment of “federal legislation to establish a single mandatory labeling standard for foods derived from GMOs” .

The move comes as Campbell – along with many other food companies supplying products in multiple states – finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place as the July 1 deadline approaches to comply with a GMO labeling law in Vermont, while a federal GMO labeling solution that all stakeholders can support has yet to be hammered out in Congress.

Until recently, Campbell – as a member of the GMA – had supported the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599​), which would pre-empt state laws that mandate GMO labeling and set up a federal voluntary 'non-GMO' labeling system run by the USDA.

While this bill has passed in the House of Representatives, however, a companion bill has not passed in the Senate, and time is running out, said Campbell CEO Denise Morrison, who said​ “Campbell has been actively involved in trying to resolve this issue since 2011.”

We’re in no way disputing the science behind GMOs or their safety

She added:  “We now believe that proposing a mandatory​ national solution is necessary. Printing a clear and simple statement on the label is the best solution for consumers and for Campbell.”

However, she stressed that “we’re in no way disputing the science behind GMOs or their safety,”​ and that “theoverwhelming weight of scientific evidence indicates that GMOs are safe and that foods derived from crops using genetically modified seeds are not nutritionally different from other foods.”

While Campbell will stay in the GMA, she said, it is now “withdrawing from all efforts led by groups opposing mandatory GMO labeling legislation, including those led by GMA”.

gmo label

"Campbell Soup advocates for federal legislation that would require all foods and beverages regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be clearly and simply labeled for GMOs. Campbell is also supportive of a national standard for non-GMO claims made on food packaging.

"The company continues to oppose a patchwork of state-by-state labeling laws, which it believes are incomplete, impractical and create unnecessary confusion for consumers." The Campbell Soup Company

Campbell is prepared to label all of its US products

So what happens next?

Right now, the company is optimistic that a “federal solution can be established in a reasonable amount of time if all the interested stakeholders cooperate​”, said Morrison.

“However, if that is not the case, Campbell is prepared to label all of its US products for the presence of ingredients that were derived from GMOs, not just those required by pending legislation in Vermont. The company would seek guidance from the FDA and approval by USDA.”

Asked if Campbell would still apply GMO labeling to its products if the GMA-backed Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act becomes federal law (which would mean it wouldn't have to label products as GMO in Vermont or anywhere else), a spokesman told FoodNavigator-USA: "Yes, we will still label."

Denise-Morrison-Campbell-new

"Campbell has been actively involved in trying to resolve this issue since 2011. We’ve worked with GMA, legislators and regulators to forge a national voluntary solution. We’ve engaged a variety of stakeholders, from lawmakers to activists. I’ve personally made multiple trips to Capitol Hill to meet with elected officials. Despite these efforts, Congress has not been able to resolve this issue. We now believe that proposing a mandatory​ national solution is necessary​."

Denise Morrison, CEO Campbell Soup

Reaction to the move

All eyes will now be on leading CPG rivals to see if they follow suit, with Morrison predicting “a mixed bag​” of reactions, given how politically charged this issue has become, and how much money leading food companies have spent so far to defeat mandatory GMO labeling initiatives.

The GMA told FoodNavigator-USA that it "respects the rights of our individual member companies to communicate with their customers in whatever manner they deem appropriate​”, but said that there were other tools to “provide consumers with the information they need to make informed product choices​” such as the new SmartLabel initiative​.

charlie-arnot_large

"Technology, including biotechnology, brings immeasurable benefits to consumers and society, but broad public support for technology will increasingly depend on the level of transparency and consumer engagement by those in the food system.

“We not only support Campbell Soup’s decision to label but also to participate in the new SmartLabel​ program, which addresses a broader list of issuesm, because the link between transparency and trust is real, direct and powerful. Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced so they can make informed decisions.”​  Charlie Arnot, CEO, Center for Food Integrity

Move sends a clear message to Monsanto and the GMA, says OCA

Not surprisingly, anti-GMO activists claimed the move as a victory, despite Campbell’s remarks about the safety of GMOs, with Just Label It, the Environmental Working Group and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) all issuing statements applauding the announcement.

Dr-Wayne-Parrott-IFT-2013
Dr Wayne Parrott: "This makes the implementation of sustainable ag practices more difficult. I really wish companies would try consumer education instead."

The OCA said the move “sends a clear message to Monsanto and the GMA​”, while Just Label It said Campbell’s move took supporters of mandatory GMO labeling “closer to reaching that goal​ [of a federal mandatory GMO labeling law].”

A Devil's bargain?

However, Dr Wayne Parrott, professor of crop science at the University of Georgia, told FoodNavigator-USA that Campbell Soup had struck a “Devil's bargain: A short term market protection at the expense of future products.”

He added: “It also makes the implementation of sustainable agricultural practices more difficult. I really wish companies would try consumer education instead.”​  

Professor: Such decisions are, however, not without their costs

Dr Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus of food science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, meanwhile, told FoodNavigator-USA: "It’s a business decision and each company has its own internal reasons for doing what it does.  I’m sure the great majority of food companies just want to put this issue behind them. None wants to be viewed as hiding information from consumers.

Dr-Bruce-Chassy-IFT-2013
Dr Bruce Chassy: "I’m sure the great majority of food companies just want to put this issue behind them."

"Such decisions are, however, not without their costs.  Those costs will be passed on to all consumers whether or not they care about the issue."

In an article​ in the Huffington Post co-authored by Jon Entine,  executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project​, Dr Chassy added: "Studies have suggested that some consumers may regard the mandatory GMO label as a safety warning. After all, why would government mandate a label on food if they weren't trying to warn us of something?

"If a label is ultimately approved, those ideologically opposed to GM foods and crops would likely quickly transmute their "right to know" effort into a massive campaign to associate that label with health dangers and ecological disaster."

More reaction to follow...

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3 comments

How far?

Posted by Dave Peters,

Would manufacturers have to use "may contain" on ingredients or would they have to guarantee GM or GM-free?

How about milk from cows that might have eaten GM feedstuff?

How about food packed by employees who have eaten cows that have eaten GM feeds?

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Cost

Posted by Robert Wager,

Since most food products contain one or more ingredient derived from a GE crop. How exactly would the individual traits be determined to ensure truth of labels?

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If you can't fix it...

Posted by Jim,

Feature it. Mandatory GMO labelling would be a huge windfall for me as a packaging designer, but that's not why I think it could be a good idea. I'd love to see food manufacturers go beyond a simple declaration, into what kind of GMOs they're using and why. If you're using drought or disease-resistant wheat to reduce waste, or hybrids that provide an enhanced nutritional profile, tell that story. We need the public to get behind the science of GMOs so we can reduce the amount of land on this planet that's been dedicated to agriculture, the amount of resources – water, pesticides, and fertilizers – that go into feeding our crops, and the amount of waste from spoilage, disease and pests.

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