The Campbell Soup Company appeared to dramatically break ranks with the rest of the food industry on Thursday night when it announced its support for mandatory federal labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients. The company, which owns Pepperidge Farm, Prego, Plum Organics, and V8 in addition to the iconic Campbell’s soup brand, has fought state-level GMO-labeling initiatives in the past and is a member of the Grocery Manufactures Association, which has lobbied hard for the so-called DARK Act that would prevent states from requiring labels on GMO foods.
The company said in a statement that “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,” with the help of both the FDA and USDA. With Vermont’s GMO-labeling law set to go in effect in June, the clock is ticking.
Thanks in large part to Andy Warhol, there’s no American food product more symbolic of the ease, convenience, and comfortable sameness that defined midcentury kitchen convenience than Campbell’s soup. But while the cultural legacy of the pop artist’s silkscreened image of the soup can endures, the same cannot be said of the brand itself. Americans simply do not eat canned soup—or green bean casserole—in the amounts they did in 1962, or even 2002. And when you consider that canned soup sales have been either flat or in decline in recent years after growing for decades (Campbell’s is the world’s largest seller of canned soup), the move to support GMO labeling looks less like a departure from the industry status quo than an extension into a new era of the brand’s efforts to retain its image as a wholesome choice.
In 2014, CEO Denise Morrison, who took over in 2011, told the audience at Campbell’s annual investors meeting that the company needed to change its products to account for the “profound transformation” in Americans’ eating habits. Namely, consumers “want to know what ingredients are used in their food and where they come from,” she said. To address that change, Morrison oversaw the acquisition of Plum Organics and Bolthouse Farm Juice, which, with product portfolios that rely heavily on fresh and often organic vegetables, are much more within the contemporary food zeitgeist than a sodium-rich can of condensed cream of mushroom soup.
Morrison spoke in a similar vein last year after Campbell’s announced its annual sales figures, which saw soup sales decline by 10 percent in the fourth quarter. She told the trade publication Food Business News that a host of factors, including demographic changes, consumer preferences, and the Internet “are contributing to mounting consumer demand for greater transparency about where and how their food is made.” The company debuted a website in 2015, whatsinmyfood.com, that provided concerned consumers with details on ingredients used in its products, including disclosures of genetically engineered ingredients.
So is Campbell’s really breaking from the pack? As Morrison noted in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, 92 percent of Americans support GMO labeling. So even if you agree with Campbell’s that there is any risk associated with eating genetically engineered foods—a sentiment the grand majority of scientific research supports—there is still a market opportunity here.
Other major food companies that have both individually and as part of the GMA fought GMO-labeling laws have nevertheless tried to take advantage of that market, but often in a low-stakes—if not cynical—manner. Cheerios went GMO-free by changing a few minor ingredients; in January, Tropicana will start labeling some of its juice products, which have never contained GMO ingredients, as GMO-free. Instead of fiddling around the margins, Campbell’s is going all in.
With implementation of Vermont’s GMO-labeling law on the horizon, mandatory labeling is about to be a day-to-day reality for all major food companies that want to do business in the state, and there are various other legislative efforts in the works. With the end-of-year push to pass the DARK Act defeated, it would appear that mandatory labeling is finally coming to fruition, albeit only in a few small places.
The GMO label for Spaghetti O’s is tucked underneath the Nutrition Facts and ingredients on the back of the can; you’d have to be looking for it to find it. The text, which meets the standards for the Vermont labeling law, reads: “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about G.M.O. ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com.”