Presidential elections occur every four years, but Election Day is every day in the food business.   Companies consistently track consumer trends.  Transparency is one such trend. 

That’s why you’re seeing “Certified Organic,” “rBST free,” and “all natural” on food labels -- even “non GMO.”  People have strong emotional connections and even stronger beliefs about which foods are better for them and their families.  We deserve to know what those terms mean.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s why Campbell embraced mandatory federal labeling of foods that use genetically modified ingredients, or “GMOs.”  Not because such foods are somehow different – there’s no meaningful difference between GMO and non-GMO foods – but because consumers want to know how their food is made. 

We need mandatory, broad-based labeling with federal preemption. Whether you’re shopping in Burlington, Vermont or Burlingame, California, it must be readily available and consistent. Letting every state establish labeling standards for GMO foods is unworkable and increases the cost of food. 

Worse, poorly crafted labeling requirements scare people. Take Vermont’s labeling law, which takes effect July 1. Over half of grocery items on shelves made with GMOs won’t even be labeled, including all U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulated products.  Congress urgently needs to establish federal express federal preemption so there’s a single national labeling standard.  With or without federal preemption, Campbell will label for the presence of ingredients derived from biotechnology.

Congress has embraced the concept of GMO labeling.  In the most recent “omnibus” spending bill passed in December 2015, the introduction of a genetically engineered salmon was prohibited until the FDA developed labeling guidelines.  Let’s shift the debate away from whether to disclose the use of GMOs to how consumers are informed.

Consumers want this information on the label. But what the label says matters – it must inform, not disparage.  It can be supplemented through new efforts, such as Campbell’s “whatsinmyfood.com” and other digital disclosure programs that can allow consumers to easily access more information. 

There are four arguments against mandatory on-package GMO labeling.  First, “Big companies are imposing expensive solutions on small companies.” Vermont has already done that with its mandatory GMO labeling.  It is, in effect, a national label since most food companies do not ultimately control the distribution of their food products.  

Second, mandatory GMO labeling is a “slippery slope.”  What’s next?  A fair point; there’s only so much room on most food labels.  That’s why we support digital disclosure efforts, such as SmartLabel. It creates a way to share more information with those who really want to know more about their food. 

Third, some believe that mandatory labeling will disparage a technology that’s proven safe and even beneficial.  But that’s already being done with dubious “non GMO” labels on foods like rock salt (salt is a mineral, not a GMO).  That’s why we also need mandatory federal standards for responsible “non GMO” labeling.

Most of the agri-food community promotes voluntary labeling.  But the voluntary labeling we’re likely to see is “Non GMO” that will further disparage food biotechnology and drive food companies away from GMOs. 

Lastly, some say government can’t legally compel such label disclosures.  However, a 2014 DC Circuit Court decision over Country of Origin Labeling (AMI vs. USDA) and a federal district court ruling last year against the food industry to stop Vermont’s labeling scheme suggests those legal objections are losing steam.

Author and former anti-GMO activist, Mark Lynas, says it best: “If enough people say that GMOs should be labeled, then labeled they must be.  So let’s think how this can be done, and moreover, how it can present some opportunities to shift this debate in a more sensible and science-based direction.”

Campbell is ready for the conversation, but first, Congress and the president need to act with legislation that directs the FDA and USDA to craft and mandate a national GMO label, along with a consumer education program so people are better informed.  Let’s get to work. 

Johnston is Campbell’s vice president-Government Affairs.  He has spent nearly 25 years in Washington, D.C., in leadership positions within the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, politics, and trade associations.