Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) have long defended their die-hard positions against mandatory GMO labeling laws, often by feigning concern about the financial impact labeling laws would have on consumers. Labeling will be costly for manufacturers, who will pass those costs on to consumers, they consistently argue (despite studies suggesting otherwise).
As if concern for consumers’ wallets had anything to do with Big Food’s determination to deceive.
So the first question we asked the Campbell Soup Co. (NYSE: CPB) last week, following the announcement that Campbell’s will label all of its products that contain GMOs, was this: Will you charge more for these products after you label them?
In an email to OCA, company spokesman Tom Hushen wrote:
“To be clear, there will be no price increase as a result of Vermont or national GMO labeling for Campbell products.”
Will Campbell’s have to absorb extra costs associated with labeling? Will profit margins on their GMO brands shrink?
No, says Carmen Bain, a sociology professor at Iowa State University who studies GMO labeling. Bain told PoliticoPro’s Jenny Hopkinson:
"Campbell has determined that the cost of labeling their products is negligible (and therefore won't mean higher costs for consumers) and that it's probably costlier for them not to get out in front of this thing.”
Campbell’s is the first major food company to break ranks with the biotech and food industries on the issue of mandatory labeling of GMOs. We don’t yet know how the decision will play out over time. (Campbell’s will finish rolling out its labels within 12-18 months, according to the New York Times).
But so far, we know this much. Consumers who still choose to buy Campbell’s GMO products, even after they read the labels, won’t pay more for those products. Campbell’s will continue to sell a mix of GMO and non-GMO foods. The company will use on-package labels (not QR codes), on all U.S. products that contain GMOs, not just those covered by Vermont’s mandatory labeling law (set to take effect July 1). Campbell’s will follow through on its labeling plan regardless of what happens at the federal level—passage of a voluntary QR code standard, preemption of Vermont’s law, or nothing at all.
And, despite all of the above, the sky will not fall.
Not perfect, but definitely a win
We’ve always viewed the GMO labeling fight as one small battle in a much larger war. That hasn’t changed.
We want GMO crops and foods to disappear, replaced by an organic regenerative food and farming system that produces chemical-free, nutrient-dense food using farming practices that restore biodiversity, keep our waters clean, treat animals humanely, support family farmers and local economies, and draw down carbon from the atmosphere by rebuilding soil health and organic matter.
Campbell’s isn’t on board with our mission, at least not yet. In an email, Campbell’s Hushen wrote:
“We still believe GMOs are safe and we continue to believe that they play an important role in feeding the world.”
Clearly, we disagree, on both counts. Most of us won’t be rushing out to buy Campbell’s non-organic soup anytime soon, label or no label.
That said, we congratulate Campbell’s for responding to consumer demand for truth and transparency in labeling. But from the “credit where credit is due” department, let’s not forget to congratulate the consumers who forced Campbell’s hand.
Campbell’s about-face on mandatory labeling didn’t happen overnight. And it’s safe to say it wouldn’t have happened at all, without consumer pressure.
For years, the most famous soup brand in the U.S. planted itself squarely in the GMA’s corner. When consumer demand for GMO labels took a political turn, sparking citizen-led ballot initiatives to mandate labels, Campbell’s stepped up to the plate. The company donated $589,000 to defeat California’s Proposition 37 in 2012, and another $385,000 to defeat a similar initiative in Washington State, in 2013.
But when the battle moved to Oregon and Colorado in 2014, Campbell’s sat on the sidelines.
Fast forward to last week, when Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison, in an official statement, wrote:
We are operating with a “Consumer First” mindset. We put the consumer at the center of everything we do. That’s how we’ve built trust for nearly 150 years. We have always believed that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food. 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.
Why spend nearly $1 million to defeat state labeling initiatives if you’ve “always believed” consumers have the right to know? According to Campbell’s, the company didn’t oppose the labeling of GMOs, though it didn’t label them. Campbell’s just didn’t like the idea of laws that might vary from state to state.
That may be the company’s line now, but until last week, all consumers knew was that Campbell’s refused to label, spent generously to defeat labeling laws, and was a member of the GMA which, among other things, sued Vermont to try to overturn the state’s mandatory labeling law.
So when the OCA launched its Traitor Boycott, targeting the GMA-member food companies that spent millions to defeat labeling laws, Campbell’s, including its organic brands, made the cut.
The boycott wasn’t exactly good for Campbell’s brand image. Could that have played into the company’s decision to cut and run from Monsanto and the GMA?
Timing is everything
Consumers can’t take all the credit for Campbell’s decision to label. Vermont’s labeling law is still on track to take effect July 1. Unless Monsanto and the GMA get Congress to preempt it, or the court overturns it, Campbell’s—and every other food company—will have to comply with Vermont’s standards, at least in Vermont.
Alternatively, food companies could remove GMO ingredients from their products, rather than label them (which is what many companies have done with products they sell in countries that require labeling). Or they could stop selling their GMO foods in Vermont, but continue selling them in other states (not likely).
When asked if Campbell’s would phase out GMOs from their brands, Hushen responded:
“We will follow our consumer-first approach and develop products that people want to eat. We expect that we will continue to have a mix of foods that are GMO free and foods that use ingredients derived from GMO crops.”
Here’s what we think: Campbell’s will closely monitor sales of products labeled as containing GMO ingredients. If sales fall off, look for more GMO-free products. If not, well, there goes another of the food industry’s phony claims—that labels will “scare” consumers away from GMO products. (To be clear, we believe consumers should be scared. GMOs have never been proven safe, they haven’t even been adequately tested. And GMO crops are grown with copious amounts of toxic chemicals, like glyphosate, recently classified as a probable carcinogen).
Either way, Hushen confirmed that Campbell’s will continue to respond to consumer demand for organic and non-GMO foods. Campbell’s already markets several organic lines, including Campbell's Organic Soups, Wolfgang Puck Organic Soups, Campbell's Organic Tomato Juice, Organic V8, Swanson Organic Broth and Plum Organics. (According to the New York Times, about 75 percent of the company’s products contain ingredients derived from corn, canola, soybeans or sugar beets, the four largest genetically engineered crops).
What does the GMA think about Campbell’s defection?
We asked, of course, and the GMA’s Roger Lowe emailed this response:
“GMA respects the rights of our individual member companies to communicate with their customers in whatever manner they deem appropriate and manufacturers have been asking for science-based guidelines from which they can reasonably disclose for the absence or presence of GMOs. For this reason, the national food supply chain advocated for a consistent national labeling standard as outlined in H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act which was sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and Rep. G.K. Butterfield and passed by a bipartisan vote of 275-150 on July 23, 2015. It is imperative that Congress acts immediately to prevent the expansion of a costly patchwork of state labeling laws that will ultimately hurt consumers who can least afford higher food prices.”
There is also broad industry consensus that a 50 state patchwork of labeling laws would only prove costly and confusing for consumers, farmers and food manufacturers.
Providing consumers with the information they need to make informed product choices is a core commitment of GMA and is at the heart of our new SmartLabel initiative which will provide consumers with far more information than could ever appear on a food label."
Missing from that statement is the word “voluntary,” which is the only form of labeling, QR code or otherwise, the GMA has so far been willing to support—and only if it preempts Vermont’s mandatory law.
And what about the fact that Campbell’s says labels won’t cause an increase in food prices? Lowe wrote: “GMA’s position on the cost issue has not changed.”
By all means, let’s not let facts get in the way of an entrenched position.
Any way you slice (or slurp) Campbell’s decision to label, this is change in the right direction. It’s proof that persistence pays. That Monsanto is not as unassailable as it thinks. And that consumers can drive corporations, even the big ones, to do the right thing.
Want to thank Campbell’s for breaking ranks with Monsanto and the GMA? Post on Campbell’s Facebook page. Or join the Stock It With Campbell’s campaign, but please – if you donate any Campbell’s products to your local food pantry, choose only an organic product.
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.