Food labeling, as I recently discussed, has become a hot-button issue, but one with no singular voice. Of the many issues that consumer advocate groups have with current food labeling standards, identifying foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is the most impassioned.
In a move that has surprised me, American food giant Campbell Soup Company announced its support for the enactment of federal legislation to establish a single sensible mandatory GMO label standard. To demonstrate the seriousness of this stance, Campbell has announced it will drop from coalitions and organizations opposing GMO labeling.
Campbell will not, however, sit on the sidelines during this debate, having promised to become a strong advocate for federal legislation that would require all foods and beverages regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) AND the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be clearly and simply labeled for GMOs. As a side note, the company wants this legislation to also include a standard for non-GMO claims.
This reasoned response to the labeling issue becomes more noteworthy when one considers that Campbell continues in their belief that GMOs are safe for human consumption and will play a crucial role in feeding the world. This belief is based on non-partisan scientific study indicating foods derived from crops grown using genetically modified seeds are not nutritionally different from other foods.
Campbell expressed optimism that a uniform federal solution can be established in a reasonable amount of time, but if that is not the case, they stand ready to label all U.S. products for the presence of ingredients that were derived from GMOs, not just those required by pending legislation in Vermont.
For clarification, the Vermont legislation will require food companies to label products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration that may contain ingredients made from GMO crops. However, this legislation does not include products with meat or poultry, because they are regulated by United States Department of Agriculture. Under Vermont law, Campbell’s SpaghettiO’s original variety, guided by the FDA, will be labeled for the presence of GMOs, but SpaghettiO’s with meatballs, guided by the USDA, will not. Yet these two varieties sit next to each other on a store shelf, and this labeling difference is bound to create consumer confusion.
The company also acknowledges the ground swell of support for GMO identification, with 92 percent of Americans emphatically behind the effort to label GMO-based foods. However, as much as the company trumpets the motivation for this effort being “rooted in their consumer-first mindset” and “driven by a commitment to transparency”, I can’t help but see this from an operational and financial prospective.
Imagine the difficulty ANY food company would have in trying to comply with disparate, dysfunctional, state-by-state labeling laws. The cost of compliance would present a heavy burden due to, among other issues, the requirement to print different labels to satisfy varying jurisdictional laws, then ensure that foods printed for one state were not distributed or sold in another.
Coupled with the potential customer service issues created by incomplete compliance language, as seen in the Vermont law, you can see why Campbell is looking to the federal government to create a national standard.
But credit where it’s due, Campbell has already taken steps to provide consumers with more information about how its products are made, including the presence of GMOs, through efforts like the website www.whatsinmyfood.com. Additionally they have announced the removal of artificial colors and flavors from their products, and will continue to support full digital disclosure through the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s SmartLabel™ program.
Now that Campbell has taken the lead on this issue, expect more companies to follow suit, but just as the states are creating conflicting laws, food companies will take different approaches to GMO labeling. If there continues to be no federal standard, and more food companies devise in-house solutions, there are bound to be conflicts with hastily written state laws, filling the courts with legal action.
The time for the federal government to act is yesterday.