With GMOs still eyed skeptically by many consumers and consumer groups, food producers have continued to fight laws that would require them to label the use of genetically modified ingredients.
It's a competition thing—forced to label what genetically modified stuff goes into their foods, companies that use GMOs could be at a disadvantage to "natural" brands (which proudly slap "GMO-free" labels on products that might not even have genes to begin with). Consider the uproar surrounding the labeling of the first genetically modified animal product in the United States, salmon.
Given the controversial climate surrounding GMOs, Campbell Soup Company, the maker of everything from its iconic soups to V8 to Goldfish and Pace Salsa, has turned heads by announcing it will begin to voluntarily label its products that contain GMOs.
Campbell's said it will take between 12 and 18 months for the new labels to roll out, and what they will look like isn't entirely clear. The sample label provided by Campbell's is one for SpaghettiOs, and it doesn't specify which particular ingredients are GMOs. The can reads, "Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about GMO ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com."
Campbell's said it will work with the FDA and Department of Agriculture to determine final wording, and took its commitment to identifying products containing GMOs to another level when it called for mandatory labeling laws from the federal government.
"We're optimistic that a federal solution can be reached in a reasonable amount of time, but if that's not the case, we're preparing to label all our products across the portfolio," said Denise Morrison, the CEO of Campbell Soup Company, in an interview with the New York Times.
In a statement to Campbell's employees posted on its website, Morrison wrote, "We are operating with a 'Consumer First' mindset." She then elaborated on some of the challenges that companies face in a market where laws can complicate the labeling process.
"There is currently no federal regulation requiring labeling that informs consumers about the presence of GMOs in their food. In the absence of federal action, many states—from California to Maine—have attempted to address this issue," Morrison wrote.
Vermont, for one, will require food-producing companies to label genetically modified ingredients starting in July. But the labeling can be complicated—that law only applies to products overseen by the FDA. As the New York Times points out, while the law would apply to SpaghettiOs, it wouldn't apply to SpaghettiOs with Meatballs, because they contain meat and are consequently overseen by the Department of Agriculture.
Given the potential headache and costs associated with producing labels for state-sized markets, it seems Campbell's is getting out ahead of labeling laws.
"Campbell [Soup Company] has opposed this state-by-state patchwork approach, and has worked with [the Grocers Manufacturers Association] to defeat several state ballot initiatives," Morrison wrote. "Put simply, although we believe that consumers have the right to know what's in their food, we also believe that a state-by-state piecemeal approach is incomplete, impractical and costly to implement for food makers."
While some will surely applaud Campbell's decision, it could potentially hurt Campbell's sales.
"I think it would get a lot of credit for transparency and that its stock would get a pop, if it were publicly traded," Phil Lempert, a food industry expert and the founder of Supermarketguru.com, told The New York Times. "But I think a consumer could be confused by it and put the product back on the shelf and grab something else."
Morrison, however, insists the labels are what consumers want.
"We know that 92 percent of Americans support GMO labeling, and transparency is a critical part of our purpose," Morrison told the Times.
Campbell has, in fact, included information about which of its products contain GMOs since last July, when it launched WhatsInMyFood.com. Curious consumers can visit the website and learn about which specific ingredients are genetically modified, as well as find information about the origin of other ingredients in Campbell's products.
It remains to be seen if other food companies follow Campbell's up-front approach. With grocery stores increasingly highlighting non-GMO products, companies that don't get the nod can be left out to dry. Whole Foods will require all products sold in its stores to disclose GMO ingredients by 2018. Even if the case against GMOs isn't fully fleshed out, it seems as if GMO activists are beginning to get their wish.