By: Stephanie Strom
Breaking from its industry rivals, Campbell Soup will become the first major food company to begin disclosing the presence of genetically engineered ingredients like corn, soy and sugar beets in its products.
The company, the maker of brands like Pepperidge Farm, Prego, Plum Organics and V8 in addition to its namesake soups, is taking the unusual step — and possibly risking sales by alienating consumers averse to genetically modified organisms — as big food corporations face increasing pressure to be more open about their use of such ingredients.
Food companies have begun printing labels to comply with a new labeling law in Vermont, which has become a battleground over labeling that other states have been watching closely. Beginning in July, Vermont will require disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients, a measure opposed by most major food companies, which are seeking to supersede any state’s legislation with a voluntary federal solution.
Campbell is also breaking with its peers by calling for federal action to make mandatory a uniform labeling system of foods that contain such ingredients, commonly known as G. M.O. labeling, said Denise Morrison, chief executive of Campbell.
“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,” Ms. Morrison said in an interview.
She said about three-quarters of the company’s products contained ingredients derived from corn, canola, soybeans or sugar beets, the four largest genetically engineered crops. The change in labeling is expected to take 12 to 18 months.
The first example provided by the company, for a SpaghettiO’s label prepared for Vermont, is sparsely worded and does not specify which individual ingredients are genetically altered. It simply states at the bottom of the label: “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about G.M.O. ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com.”
Other companies have reformulated a handful of products to replace such ingredients. General Mills now produces non-G.M.O. Cheerios, and others have put labels on some products verifying that they contain no genetically engineered components, like Tropicanajuices.
But none have gone as far as Campbell, whose move is reminiscent of that by Whole Foods Markets, which almost three years ago created an uproar when it announced that, as of 2018, it would require all products sold in its stores to have labels disclosing the presence of ingredients from genetically altered crops.
More mainstream grocers like Kroger and Safeway have moved to highlight their selection of organic products, which by law cannot contain any genetically modified ingredients, and have quietly urged big food manufacturers not to oppose demands for G.M.O. labeling.
The number of products verified by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit group that certifies foods that are free of ingredients from genetically engineered sources, is now in the tens of thousands.
But many companies have long argued that a patchwork of state laws with different requirements for G.M.O. labeling will be cumbersome and expensive, and the quirks in the Vermont law are making their case.
Ms. Morrison noted, for example, that in Vermont, the cans of SpaghettiOs will have to be wrapped in one label stating that the product contains ingredients from genetically engineered sources because they fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. But Campbell does not have to disclose that SpaghettiOs with Meatballs contains such ingredients because that product is governed by the Department of Agriculture — and the Vermont law applies only to products overseen by the F.D.A.
“A state-by-state patchwork of laws could be incredibly costly not only for our company but for the entire industry,” Ms. Morrison said. “That’s why we want the federal government to come up with a national standard that is mandatory.”
Campbell will seek advice from the Department of Agriculture and the F.D.A. about what language it might use on its packaging. In an interview with The Des Moines Register in December, Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said he planned to hold a meeting with food companies and others in the hope of reaching a compromise before the Vermont law goes into effect.
“I’m going to challenge them to get this thing fixed,” Mr. Vilsack told The Register, adding that he was worried about “chaos in the market” if other states follow suit. “That will cost the industry a substantial amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, and it will ultimately end up costing the consumer,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said no date had been set for the meeting, nor had any decisions been made about who would attend.
Ms. Morrison said that complying with Vermont’s law was expensive but that establishment of a national mandatory labeling standard to take effect over a period of time would allow companies to work the changes into their business operations with little cost. She noted that adoption of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which required companies to add nutritional information to their labels, did not significantly raise costs.
Ms. Morrison said she could not speculate on how the move to label all of Campbell’s products might affect the company’s sales. In 2011, food manufacturers themselves introduced a program called Facts Up Front to make information about the amount of sugar, salt, fat and calories in their products even more obvious by putting it out front in an easy-to-read format, which had no notable impact on sales.
Last year, Campbell created the website that offers information about the ingredients in its products and how they are used, including those items that come from genetically engineered crops.
It discloses, for instance, that among the ingredients in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, the vegetable oil, monosodium glutamate and modified food starch may come from genetically engineered sources. The website has had no apparent impact on sales, according to a company spokeswoman.
“We’ve always believed consumers have a right to know what’s in their food,” Ms. Morrison said. “We know that 92 percent of Americans support G.M.O. labeling, and transparency is a critical part of our purpose.”
Phil Lempert, a food industry expert and founder of Supermarketguru.com, said it could be risky for a company to disclose genetically altered ingredients. “I think it would get a lot of credit for transparency and that its stock would get a pop, if it were publicly traded,” Mr. Lempert said. “But I think a consumer could be confused by it and put the product back on the shelf and grab something else.”
Mr. Lempert and other marketing experts recommended that the company use clear language to inform its consumers.
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” said Carl Jorgensen, director of global consumer strategy and wellness at Daymon Worldwide, a consulting firm. While studies have shown that consumers favor such labeling, he said he did not know of data collected on the impact of labels on sales.
Campbell joined other major food companies in fighting efforts to impose mandatory labeling in California and Washington State, spending more than $1 million, according to the Environmental Working Group. It is also a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group that has spent millions trying to get a bill passed in Congress that would make labeling voluntary and pre-empt state labeling efforts.
“We will withdraw from any coalition that doesn’t support mandatory labeling,” Ms. Morrison said. “We were involved in fighting the state ballots in California and Washington out of concern over a state-by-state patchwork, yet we didn’t participate in the fights in any other state beyond those. Any money we did spend after that was in support of seeking a federal solution.”
Originally Published: The New York Times