WASHINGTON, April 7, 2016 - The top lobbyist for Campbell Soup Co. says it’s time for the food industry to put the GMO debate behind it and support a national labeling requirement.

“It’s time to leapfrog this and have the industry embrace labeling, mandatory on-pack labeling. … Get this issue behind us and empower consumers to make their own decisions,” Kelly Johnston, Campbell’s vice president of government affairs, said Thursday at an annual food policy conference sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America.

Campbell announced in January that it would start labeling its products with biotech ingredients, and the company dropped out of the industry coalition led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association that is lobbying for legislation to preempt state labeling laws. The first such law takes effect in Vermont July 1. 

“We said, ‘You know what, it’s time for us to stop being on the defensive on the issue. We need to get past this false notion that we’ve got something to hide about our products,” he said.

A preemption bill stalled in the Senate last month because of resistance from Democrats who believe there should be a mandatory requirement for on-package labeling, something that had been a non-starter for most of the industry, with the notable exception of Campbell Soup. Four other companies have recently announced plans to start labeling their products in compliance with the Vermont law.

There has been little evidence of progress toward a compromise in the Senate. The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow, told the CFA conference earlier Thursday that she was still committed to resolving the issue but reaffirmed her stance that there would have to be a national disclosure standard. “We cannot preempt states without a national policy,” she said.

Johnston said he favors legislation introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., that would require products with biotech ingredients to have some kind of wording or a symbol. 

Johnston said there may be some consumers who turn away from GMO products, but an earlier experience of the company’s in Australia suggests that the labels won’t affect most consumers. Campbell test-marketed a product that had to be labeled as biotech because of its ingredients but there was no impact on sales, he said. 

One option the Merkley bill would allow is a special symbol such as the one Brazil uses, the letter “T,” for transgenic, within a triangle. But Johnston said that symbol doesn’t give consumers enough information. 

Citing concerns that labeling would demonize genetic engineering he said that non-GMO labels already are raising concerns about biotechnology, noting that they are appearing on a variety of products for which there isn’t a biotech version on the market. Salt, which is a mineral and can’t be genetically engineered, is even labeled as non-GMO, he said. 

“We’ve had this proliferation of very misleading non-GM labeling. You’re doing more damage to the technology than you are by putting something on the label that is truthful and not misleading,” he said. 

He said shoppers spend more time looking at ingredient lists than they do at the nutrition facts panel, which lists the calorie count as well as the product’s fat, sugar,  sodium and vitamin content. 

Johnston also said Campbell is replacing artificial ingredients as quickly as it can. A “shorter, cleaner label helps all of us.”