Campbell to label for GMOs in break from industry

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2016 - The Campbell Soup Co. says it will start labeling its products for the presence of biotech ingredients, a landmark break from the rest of the conventional food industry.

Campbell made clear that it still supported the use of genetic engineering in agriculture but said that there is a need for national labeling standards that would preempt state standards.

Until now, the industry has been largely united in its resistance to including genetically modified organism (GMO) language on labels, preferring to disclose biotech ingredients through the newly developed SmartLabel system that provides the information through smartphone codes and on the Internet.

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“Campbell is optimistic a federal solution can be established in a reasonable amount of time if all the interested stakeholders cooperate. However, if that is not the case, Campbell is prepared to label all of its U.S. products for the presence of ingredients that were derived from GMOs, not just those required by pending legislation in Vermont,” the company said in a news release.  

The company said it would seek guidance from the FDA and approval by USDA for its labeling plans. 

The company posted an example of the language it plans to use: “PARTIALLY PRODUCED WITH GENETIC ENGINEERING,” which would be accompanied by a link to a company website. 

The company also posted a message from Campbell's president and CEO, Denise Morrison, to company employees explaining the decision. “Congress has not been able to resolve this issue. We now believe that proposing a mandatory national solution is necessary. Printing a clear and simple statement on the label is the best solution for consumers and for Campbell.” 

The first state labeling law takes effect in Vermont in July, and Morrison said those regulations were “bound to create consumer confusion” because the law would apply only to products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and not to meat-containing items regulated by the Agriculture Department.

The good news for the biotech industry is that the company didn't say it would stop using GMO ingredients but instead provided an unqualified endorsement of the technology. 

“I want to stress that we're in no way disputing the science behind GMOs or their safety. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence indicates that GMOs are safe and that foods derived from crops using genetically modified seeds are not nutritionally different from other foods,” Morrison wrote.

“In America, many farmers who grow canola, corn, soybean and sugar beets choose to use genetically modified seeds and have done so for nearly twenty years. More than 90 percent of these four crops in America are currently grown using GMO seeds. It takes an average of thirteen years to get a GMO seed approved by the government for safety.  Ingredients derived from these crops are in many of our products.  We also believe that GMOs and other technologies will play a crucial role in feeding the world.”

The U.S. House last summer passed legislation that would preempt state GMO labeling laws, but some Senate Democrats blocked any such provision from being added to the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that passed in December. 

Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee have said they would renew efforts to pass a preemption bill this year, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he wants to find a compromise that both sides can accept. 

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The ranking Democrat on the Senate committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, has said that a compromise bill would have to include a mandatory disclosure requirement. Industry officials remain in discussions about a path forward. 

Campbell noted that it already discloses its use of GMOs through a website, www.whatsinmyfood.com. “With 92 percent of Americans supporting the labeling of GMO foods, Campbell believes now is the time for the federal government to act quickly to implement a federal solution.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has been leading the push for a bill to preempt Vermont's law and set national labeling standards, said the industry group “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.”

But GMA said it is “still 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.”

Scott Faber, who heads the Just Label It coalition that is lobbying for mandatory GMO labeling, said of the announcement: “Campbell's has long been committed to transparency and their announcement today is consistent with this tradition.”

(Updated 11 a.m.)

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