It has been about a week and a half since The NY Times and other mainstream news sources reported that Campbell Soup Company has announced that it will disclose on their product labeling all genetically modified or genetically engineered ingredients across every entry in all their product lines. I have reported on the GMO labeling issue in the past, especially with the situation in California, where all the huge food companies joined together to defeat that proposed ballot initiative.
This choice by Campbell’s Soup at this time will certainly apply pressure to other food industry players to comply in disclosing their GMO containing products. In the process, the federal government will also be under scrutiny, particularly the FDA, to initiate fundamental and substantive progress on a labeling requirement system for genetically modified ingredients in consumer food products.
The component of the decision by Campbell Soup that is significantly newsworthy is the size and scope of the amount of products it covers. This food industry giant has several brands encompassing the full range of the grocery channel from Prego sauces, Swanson broths, V8 beverages, and Pepperidge Farms bakery products.
The iconic Campbell’s Soup brand alone has an enormous amount of products especially with the line extensions of recent years to add lower sodium and gluten free soups for an increasingly health conscious American consumer. The reality of the consequences for this move sent shockwaves through the food industry and through the Wall Street analysts who evaluate the factors which will potentially impact a given publicly-traded corporation such as Campbell.
In some of the media reports I researched, it was noted that some investment analysts believe that this choice toward full disclosure by Campbell’s is going to “scare the consumer” when they pick up a can of soup and read that it contains genetically engineered ingredients. These same reports indicate that a drop in sales which will cause a chain reaction to a decrease in revenue will cause a drop in the stock price. The competition in the soup aisle and the other grocery aisles could stand to benefit from this decision by Campbell’s.
The move to full disclosure of these ingredients will serve as a stark dose of reality to the average American consumer of just how widespread the use of genetically engineered products is within the food supply currently. The average consumer may, at that point, start to question whether the competition in the aisle also contains GMO ingredients. The impact of this decision on the sales of healthier trending grocery outlets such as Whole Foods, Wegman’s, or Trader Joe’s remains to be seen.
Furthermore, this decision will inevitably shift the focus onto the fact that the key ingredients in many of our food products: corn, soybeans, and sugar beets are all genetically engineered. The alternative sources of these staple commodities which are grown currently in conditions that are organic or GMO free are produced in nowhere near the quantities needed to sustain the entire food supply. The global farming system could not produce those crop yields of GMO free food ingredients if they wanted to because the seeds are genetically modified and the soil of so much farmland is contaminated with pesticides and chemicals such as Roundup.
Green Mountain Debate
Vermont passed legislation on the state level requiring food sold there to have a full disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients on every product label. This is thought to have been the driving factor behind the decision by Campbell’s Soup Company to make the change to their labels across the board.
The legislation passed in the Green Mountain State also brought about renewed vigor in the food industry regarding the debate over the GMO disclosure laws. One side of this discourse feels that the food industry should be insulated from having to disclosure this information fully, yet another group feels that the disclosure should be limited in scope. Further still, a third faction of this argument believes that the federal government needs to pass legislation that supersedes the state government level activity on this issue.
In fact, I believe that the motivation behind Campbell’s Soup and their decision to fully disclosure the GMO ingredients in their respective products is to push the federal government to adopt a coherent policy for the entire industry. This new label disclosure by a major player such as Campbell’s “moves the needle” on the conversation with the federal government and food industry leaders. When asked about the motivation for the decision in an interview with the NY Times, Campbell Soup Company CEO, Denise Morrison, explained that the consumer has “the right to know” if a product contains genetically modified components.
In the view of the food industry players involved, most of them would rather deal with a federal mandate on how to label GMO ingredients than the alternative, which is to deal with each individual state passing their own procedures relative to the labeling of these ingredients. The rationale behind this viewpoint is due to the fact that changes to any food product label are expensive and time consuming for the food companies involved.
A system for GMO disclosure which is reliant on the legal activity of 50 separate state governments that could come up with 50 different procedures or sets of requirements for a label on a food product is a recipe for disaster. It will dominate the time for numerous departments in the respective food company, it will drive up labor costs because the labels will have to be switched out during the production runs depending upon which state the product is being distributed to, and it will increase the cost to the consumer as well.
Conversely, the federal system would allow for one universal change to the label of a given product which would be effective across the country and be far more efficient for everyone involved. However the system has to be done in the right way, it should be cohesive and inclusive so that circumvention is not attainable. Some consumer advocacy groups linked to the “no GMO” movement have voiced concerns that the federal system may provide loopholes for the food industry to get around fully disclosing the specific genetically engineered ingredients in their products.
The argument could be made that this situation is not a clear victory for the “no GMO” movement because we still have no federal mandate on a universal labeling system, the state level legislation is still active which forces those groups who are advocating for “right to know if it’s GMO” to fight separate lobbying battles in each state, and the bottom line is that the GMOs are still in our food we will just be told what they are exactly.
This choice by Campbell’s is clearly an indication of the strength of the healthy eating and wellness trends in the American consumer landscape. In the months to come it will be interesting to see which companies within the consumer packaged goods industry will follow suit with label disclosures on GMO ingredients.
In my professional experience in the food industry working with product line extensions across a variety of segments and dealing with label declarations, Campbell Soup Company was bold in this move and correct in their assessment that we need a federal system for GMO disclosure. A state-by-state format for this type of consumer labeling situation is a nightmare scenario for all parties involved. The need for a decision by federal regulatory entities needs to become a high priority in 2016, the American people and the food industry need it to happen sooner rather than later.
The next round in this fight is to eliminate GMOs which is an entirely different challenge with its own set of issues.
(Frank J. Maduri is a freelance writer and journalist with a professional background in marketing for the food, pharmaceutical, and healthcare industries. He has experience with food and beverage line extensions for national consumer products brands involving compliance with federal and state labeling requirements.)