A food industry perspective on the impending labeling of bioengineered foods was provided by Jeff George, vice-president of research and development for Americas simple meals and beverages at the Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., during during a session of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 93rd annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in Washington Feb. 24.
The session was convened at a time when the U.S.D.A. was preparing to launch a consumer survey that will inform its rulemaking in connection with establishing a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard. Congress passed S.764 in July 2016, which directed the U.S.D.A. to establish such a standard by July 2018. The consumer survey itself was expected to be concluded by February 2018. S. 764 also preempted a Vermont mandatory G.M.O. labeling bill that would have taken effect in July 2016 and will prevent other states or jurisdictions from establishing any other G.M.O. labeling requirements for food.
Mr. George described Campbell Soup’s journey on G.M.O. labeling as not arduous.
“In fact, we’re actually energized and excited by the opportunity this has given us to make a statement about how we see our company in the future,” he said.
Mr. George said Campbell Soup’s journey began with Vermont Act 120, mandatory G.M.O. labeling legislation that was signed into law in 2014 and would have taken effect in the state in July 2016.
In response to the Vermont law, Campbell Soup joined with other food and agribusiness concerns to collectively advocate for a federal preemption of what threatened to become a patchwork of G.M.O. labeling laws across the country.
“Like many companies, we joined the Coalition for Safe, Affordable Food with the intention of establishing national standards for voluntary G.M.O. labeling,” Mr. George said.
He noted the House of Representatives in June 2015 passed a voluntary G.M.O. labeling bill, the Safe & Accurate Food Labeling Act, but that bill failed to pass muster in the Senate in December of that year.
“We can’t isolate products and labels for one particular state,” Mr. George said. “So essentially, the Vermont law became the national law, for us. So we began down the path of implementing it while at the same time strongly hoping for a national federal preemption in favor of voluntary labeling.”
Mr. George noted around the end of 2015, Campbell Soup management, in the wake of difficulties to enact voluntary G.M.O. labeling legislation and motivated by the company’s purpose, “real food that matters for life’s moments,” made major decisions regarding its approach to G.M.O.s.
Understanding consumers want to know, and have the right to know, more about their food, Campbell Soup decided to set a standard for transparency regarding its products and the ingredients used in their manufacture. The company launched a web site, www.whatsinmyfood.com, which displays a wealth of information on the company’s brands, products and ingredients.
Campbell Soup also began to look at the G.M.O. issue in a different way, “from a consumer lens,” Mr. George said. He pointed to results of several consumer surveys that confirmed consumers by sizable majorities do want transparency from food companies with regard to use of bioengineered ingredients and want the information displayed on product labels. At the same time, surveys also indicate it may be a misconception or exaggeration to conclude that because consumers want this information they will immediately go out and boycott products that are G.M.O. and switch to G.M.O.-free products. Mr. George pointed out one survey indicated only one in four consumers could identify one product that they stopped using because it had G.M.O.s or started using because it was G.M.O.-free.
“Transparency builds trust in our products and brands and company,” Mr. George said. “So we decided to disclose G.M.O. on all of our products.”
This decision was announced in January 2016, and the company never looked back.
Based on consumer responses to the initiative, Mr. George said, “While consumers don’t necessarily like the fact there are G.M.O.s in the product, many appreciate transparency and an explanation as to why they are there. Consumers felt Campbell Soup is doing its best on G.M.O.s, and that the story conveys that.”
Mr. George outlined key elements of Campbell Soup’s G.M.O. labeling policy. First, G.M.O.s are safe.
“Campbell Soup will continue to use them, and there are no major reformulations planned specifically to avoid G.M.O.s,” Mr. George asserted.
Second, mandatory labeling must inform but not frighten or mislead consumers. Third, G.M.O. labeling should be broad based and include pharmaceuticals as well as food. And fourth, Campbell Soup is committed to carrying out the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s SmartLabel program and digital disclosure to supplement the on-package label, including “whatsinmyfood.com.”
Mr. George said Campbell Soup will continue to work with the U.S.D.A. as it proceeds with its consumer survey and rulemaking for a national bioengineered disclosure standard. To that end, he advised the U.S.D.A. that Campbell Soup’s own research indicated consumers want on-package labels with simple and familiar language. They also want specificity in the on-package language, i.e. what specific ingredients in a food product are G.M.O.