Maybe you’ve been following the long-simmering controversy about labeling food products for GMOs (genetically modified organisms). If you haven’t, now is a good time to pay attention because one of the world’s largest food conglomerates—that would be Campbell’s—has just thrown a new twist into the GMO pot. In fact, Campbell’s recently announced turnaround might just prove to be the watershed moment the anti-GMO movement and vocal consumers have been hoping for.
Campbell’s, a long-time opponent of GMO labeling, is breaking ranks with its biotech and agribusiness cronies and the powerful Grocery Manufacturing Association (GMA) to become the first major food company to label its entire line of products for genetically engineered ingredients. (That portfolio includes Campbell’s iconic soups, Pepperidge Farm cookies and snacks, Vlasic pickles, V-8 beverages, Prego pasta sauces, Swanson broths, and more).
Campbell’s new policy is in answer to consumers’ demands for transparency and reflects the economic realities of the impending enforcement of the first state-labeling law to take effect this summer in Vermont. To put it bluntly, it looks like Campbell’s is conceding defeat in the fight to establish mandatory labeling of GMOs.
Here’s how Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison’s dropped the bombshell on January 17th:
Today, consistent with our purpose, we announced our support for mandatory national labeling of products that may contain genetically modified organisms (GMO) and proposed that the federal government provide a national standard for non-GMO claims made on food packaging.
Campbell’s announcement must have sent shockwaves through the industrial food complex because up to this year the company had been marching in lock step with the powerful anti–GMO-labeling lobby. That group was composed of a who’s who of America’s food giants—corporate titans like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Land O’Lakes, Del Monte, Cargill, ConAgra, Ocean Spray, and Smuckers.
Along with Campbell’s announcement backing a federal mandate for labeling came a second bombshell: that the company would “withdraw from all efforts led by coalitions and groups opposing such measures.” It was as recent as 2012 that Campbell’s deposited $265,000 into the anti-labeling lobby’s war chest. That pile of cash eventually tallied up to the mighty sum of $46 million, which America’s corporate giants sank into the campaign to defeat Proposition 37 in California (the first salvo in the fight to defeat state-mandated labeling of foods for GMO ingredients). And although Campbell’s contribution was a drop in the bowl compared to Monsanto’s more than $4 million and DuPont’s more than $3 million, the new year’s turnaround by Campbell’s could be a game changer.
Remember that the corporate bullies won the first battle in 2012, when California voters narrowly defeated Prop 37. Where California failed, however, Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine succeeded. In May 2014, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law Act 120, one of the country’s first mandatory, GMO-labeling laws. Act 120, which becomes enforceable as of July 2016, requires that all foods offered for sale in Vermont must be labeled for GMOs if the food is “entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.”
It looks like tiny Vermont sounded the alarm on the future of GMO-labeling and one corporate food giant finally is listening.
Addressing the question of why the sudden turnaround: Here’s Campbell’s Morrison again:
We are operating with a “consumer first” mindset. We put the consumer at the center of everything we do. . . . GMO has evolved to be a top consumer food issue reaching a critical mass of 92% of consumers in favor of putting it on the label.
And Campbell’s has broken ranks even on the issue of the cost of labeling. Addressing the canard that labeling for GMOs would increase costs for consumers, in an email response to the Organic Consumers Association, Campbell’s spokesperson Tom Hushen wrote:
To be clear, there will be no price increase as a result of Vermont or national GMO labeling for Campbell products.
Campbell’s words and actions certainly appear to support the obvious economic benefits of a single federal labeling law rather than the higher projected costs of complying with a patchwork of state labeling laws. Campbell’s will be looking for guidance from the USDA and FDA for a single, federally legislated mandatory labeling standard. In sum, Campbell’s—unlike the rest of the food giants—has seen where the wind is blowing on GMO transparency and has decided to take the lead.
However, lest GMO opponents get too excited, it’s important to point out that Campbell’s is not conceding anything on the health dangers of GMOs. Here is spokesperson Tom Hushen of Campbell’s reaffirming his company’s unwavering commitment to GMOs:
We still believe GMOs are safe, and we continue to believe that they play an important role in feeding the world.
Clearly, for GMO opponents hoping to eliminate genetically modified ingredients entirely from America’s food basket, the labeling battle may have been won but the war will still go on.