Editor's Plate: Campbell's Gamble … or Gambit?

Maybe the company is just enacting what the bigger food industry has been quietly preparing for all along.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

There are days, here in the dead of a Chicago winter, that my dog barks and whines to go out in the backyard. When I can’t stand his noise any longer, I let him out – giving him what he wants – and within a minute he wants back in.Is it a stretch to make that a metaphor for GMO labeling?

Campbell Soup Co. turned up the heat – at least a little – in January when it announced it would support federal legislation to establish a single, mandatory labeling standard for foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The bigger shocker, really, was that the company began labeling at least some of its foods with a simple “partially produced with genetic engineering” declaration on the back.

This “bold” move I hear is nothing more than what leading food companies, through their Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA), have been negotiating for more than a year now. With a three-year-old labeling law finally set to take effect in Vermont in July and other writings on other walls, Big Food has been preparing for the inevitable while still officially opposing the mandatory labeling of GMOs.

Having a hand in writing what they perceive to be an onerous law is better than not having any input. GMA’s official and most recent line on the subject was repeated in an October 2015 press release. After noting “the tremendous urgency for Congress to pass a national, uniform labeling standard this year,” GMA said: “While we continue our efforts in federal court to challenge Vermont’s state labeling law, the court process could take years until full resolution… That leaves only Congress with the authority to prevent this law and others like it from enactment. It is critically important that Congress act this year to prevent a costly and confusing patchwork of state labeling laws from taking effect next year and spreading across the country.”

But credit Campbell for the giant step of being the first to put those words on a food package. I think GMA hoped the SmartLabel QR code, revealed back in December, would suffice for GMO labeling. The SmartCode could provide consumers tons of information about the food product they held in their hand: where it was processed and packaged, allergens, third-party certifications, recipes. And buried in all that information would be a declaration of GMOs. But that won’t quiet the barking dogs.

The Just Label It organization, which is devoted to advocating for mandatory GMO labeling, applauded Campbell’s move. Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It but also chairman of Stonyfield Farm, complimented Campbell and noted, “Consumers simply want a factual disclosure on the package, not a warning, and we are hopeful that Congress can craft a national GMO labeling solution in the coming months. Thanks to Campbell’s leadership, we are closer to reaching that goal.”

Just Label It also cites a poll it commissioned that found “90 percent of Americans support labeling of GMO food; specifically Americans want an on-package GMO label rather than use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.”

The Philadelphia papers report about three-quarters of Campbell’s products contain GMOs, which is in line with what’s been estimated for similarly big, diverse food processors.

Don’t forget: General Mills put a self-proclaimed “not made with genetically modified ingredients” statement on some of its Cheerios cereals back in January 2014. Three months later, Chairman & CEO Ken Powell said the company had received good press, supportive letters and positive online comments for its decision but no incremental sales. What’s more, “It’s what I expected,” Powell told the Associated Press.

Cheerios’ consumers didn’t care enough about GMOs to raise sales; I don’t think most consumers will care enough to kill the sales of any product with a “contains GMOs” label. Although Campbell is making itself the guinea pig.

Give Campbell credit for breaking the ice. I think there will be certain segments of the consuming public that will be horrified when they find out what percentage of our food supply contains GMOs. But the great silent majority will hardly notice. Those who care will avoid foods with GMOs – as they already can, thanks to the Non-GMO Project certification. And the rest of us will continue to buy the foods we’ve loved for years. Gotta go. Now what does my dog want?

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