What Campbell's bold new GMO plan means for the food label wars

To provide deeper disclosure about GMO content, Campbell labels will point consumers to a special website.

Campbell Soup Co. may be the loudest voice calling for national policy guiding how to label products containing genetically modified organisms, but it’s not alone. Other influential food giants decrying state-mandated label laws in favor of a federal strategy include General Mills and Land O'Lakes.

The rationale cited by all three companies is similar: None like the emerging "patchwork" of state laws that will tell companies how to declare the presence of GMOs in their products.

But Campbell’s declaration in early January differs in one very significant way. Like many other food companies, it loves the idea of a national policy allowing producers to make "non-GMO" claims — to satisfy consumer calls for transparency and, in some cases, to become a point of marketing differentiation.

However, the company behind brands such as Pepperidge Farm, Swanson and Prego also advocates the opposite. In other words, it thinks food and beverages regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture should be labeled for GMOs, if they contain them.

"We now believe that proposing a mandatory national solution is necessary," wrote Campbell President and CEO Denise Morrison in a message to employees about the decision. "Printing a clear and simple statement on the label is the best solution for consumers and for Campbell."

The debate over GMOs is fraught with emotion and politics. Supporters point to the potential to eliminate disease, reduce the need for fertilizers and improve crop yields. Opponents worry about the long-term health impact on humans and natural ecosystems.

The move also comes amid a broader reordering of the food industry, where increased consumer and activist scrutiny of supply chains is pushing incumbents to reevaluate their procedures. Antibiotic-free meat and cage-free eggs are two other examples of food supply chain sustainability issues that have bubbled up again in recent months.

For Campbell, increasing product offerings with fresh and "natural" ingredients, including the recent $231 million acquisition of Garden Fresh Gourmet, has been a related priority.

Digging into GMOs

So, what exactly does Campbell's new labeling verdict mean? For one thing, you can expect to see Campbell drop out of any industry organization that embraces a contrary position. It also will recuse itself from backing fights against statewide initiatives, even though it opposes them in spirit, according to Campbell spokesperson Tom Hushen.

Instead, the company is forging ahead proactively with plans to label all of its U.S. products for GMO content. It started doing this in an anticipation of Vermont’s law, slated to take effect July 1.

"Consumers may see labels on some of our products appear later this year if the law takes effect," Hushen said. "That said, this is not the mandatory federal labeling we’re seeking. This is an example of a state law which is impractical and creates unnecessary confusion for consumers — it covers products covered by the FDA but not those that contain meat and poultry and are governed by USDA."

Under the Vermont law, for example, a vegetable soup regulated by the FDA would be required to declare GMO content. The same recipe including beef or chicken, however, might not be subject to the same requirement.

The Campbell labels contain a simple statement that is as prominent as other nutritional information: "Partially produced with genetic engineering." Consumers then are referred to the company’s WhatsInMyFood.com website for more specifics. About 75 percent of Campbell’s products contain soy, canola, corn or sugar beets — among the most common GMO crops.

Campbell is also one of more than 30 companies participating in the emerging SmartLabel program developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). The idea is to help consumers research more details about products by scanning a QR barcode.

That, in turn, would direct them to a site with data such as nutritional information, ingredients, potential allergans and so forth. Marketing materials about the initiative suggest that participants will start using SmartLabel for GMO disclosures by the end of 2017. 

Aside from Campbell, other food and beverage giants developing SmartLabel programs include ConAgra, Hormel Foods, Land O’Lakes, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Hershey, Bumble Bee Seafoods, Tyson Foods, General Mills, McCormick & Co. and Unilever.

"SmartLabel is an important tool for brands to provide more product information, helping build trust with consumers who are increasingly mobile and online," said Kees Kruythoff, president of Unilever’s North American operation, in a statement.

GMA is one organization Campbell won’t have to reconsider for membership renewal. It actively has lobbied for a "uniform national standard." Chances are, however, that you won’t see it allied with the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, which opposes "on-package" labeling. The group’s position is that state-by-state labeling laws will force higher food prices — costing the average American family $500 annually — and confuse consumers.