WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2016 - Campbell Soup Company’s decision to support mandatory GMO labeling received plaudits from labeling advocates, jeers from an anti-labeling industry coalition, and a more subdued response from the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

It also may have greased the skids for federal legislation, a task that could be made easier if all sides in the debate could agree on what Congress should do.

Negotiations over a resolution to the issue could heat up next week. A source told Agri-Pulse that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is inviting representatives from both sides to a meeting Wednesday in an attempt to forge a compromise on a labeling bill. 

The Center for Food Safety, a pro-labeling advocacy group that doesn’t support the legislative effort, on Sunday is launching TV advertising in the Washington, D.C., area and in states of key lawmakers. "We’re dedicated to making sure Congress does not interfere” with state labeling laws, said Andrew Kimbrell, the group’s executive director. 

Meanwhile, Campbell’s announcement has given new life to the ongoing national discussion, coming as it did on the heels of the release of new dietary guidelines.

“We applaud Campbell Soup for their independent, pro-consumer move today and look forward to achieving a national, mandatory GMO labeling requirement on all food packaging,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of both Stonyfield Farm and Just Label It, said, “Consumers simply want a factual disclosure on the package, not a warning, and we are hopeful that Congress can craft a national GMO labeling solution in the coming months. Thanks to Campbell’s leadership, we are closer to reaching that goal.”

On the other side was the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF), which said that labeling is “unnecessary, inherently misleading and will drive up food prices for consumers, with low-income Americans being particularly hard hit.”

“CFSAF has been urging Congress to take needed action to provide for a national uniform solution to a patchwork of state laws relative to GMO labeling,” said the group, whose members include the major trade associations representing food and feed producers, and many more groups, such as the National Restaurant Association.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is a member of CFSAF, said it “respects the rights of our individual member companies to communicate with their customers in whatever manner they deem appropriate,” but that “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, D-N.C.” That bill cleared the House in July, 275-150.

“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,” GMA said.

Looming over the announcement is the Vermont labeling law, due to go into effect in July.

“There is wide agreement on the urgent need for Congress to act on a bipartisan solution to avoid the economic costs of the Vermont law that will be shared throughout the industry—from producers to consumers,” CFSAF said. “We stand ready to work with congressional leaders to find a bipartisan solution and urge Congress to act as soon as possible to enact a national uniform solution.”

Campbell also cited the Vermont law in its announcement.

While “optimistic a federal solution can be established in a reasonable amount of time if all the interested stakeholders cooperate,” the company said it is prepared to label all of its U.S. products for the presence of ingredients derived from GMOs, “not just those required by pending legislation in Vermont. The company would seek guidance from the FDA and approval by USDA.”

A Campbell spokesman said the statement means what it says. “We will comply with Vermont law if it comes into effect and if there is not federal legislation, we will work with the agencies to label all of our U.S. products,” said Thomas Hushen.

Campbell CEO Denise Morrison elaborated on the rationale behind the decision in a message to employees. Noting that Vermont’s law applies only to foods regulated by FDA, and not USDA-regulated meat or poultry, she said, “Under Vermont law, SpaghettiO’s original variety, guided by the FDA, will be labeled for the presence of GMOs, but SpaghettiO’s meatballs, guided by the USDA, will not. Yet these two varieties sit next to each other on a store shelf, which is bound to create consumer confusion.”

Asked whether Campbell planned to expand its line of organic products, company spokesman Hushen said, “Our efforts to expand our organic offerings began before this announcement. We continue to respond to the consumer interest in health and well-being, including the interest in fresh and organic foods. We recently launched our first range of 'Campbell's' certified-organic soups including an organic line of soups for kids. We've also simplified recipes for kids condensed soups. We're also planning to launch Goldfish with organic wheat. Additionally, we have Plum Organics products as well as some Swanson, Bolthouse Farms and Wolfgang Puck.”

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The Center for Food Safety’s Kimbrell said that other companies are likely to follow Campbell and announce their own labeling plans because they are tired of being targeted by activists and spending money fighting labeling laws. “Their view of it is, why should they carry Monsanto’s water?” he said, referring to the biggest producer of genetically modified seeds.

Kimbrell said it will be interesting to see how consumers react to the labeling, but that many of Campbell’s products may not even require it because they don’t include ingredients that have biotech versions. “We’ll all see in the marketplace what this labeling means,” Kimbrell said.


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Editor's note: This story was changed at Campbell's request to clarify a quote about organic soups. "We’ve had kids condensed for years, it's the organic kids soup which is new," spokesman Thomas Hushen said.