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January 14, 2016

Why Campbell’s move on GMOs is savvy

The decision by Campbell Soup Co. to back nationwide mandatory labelling of the genetically modified ingredients in food on sale in the US, Ben Cooper writes, is more about the merits and importance of greater transparency than it is about the pros and cons of GM itself.

The decision by Campbell Soup Co. to back nationwide mandatory labelling of the genetically modified ingredients in food on sale in the US, Ben Cooper writes, is more about the merits and importance of greater transparency than it is about the pros and cons of GM itself.

If events in the food sector during recent years have taught food companies anything, it is transparency is a prerequisite of doing business.

Scares, scandals and public debates relating to a raft of issues have repeatedly shown the need for ever greater transparency regarding where food comes from and how it is produced. 

As debates have played out, whether regarding child and forced labour in cocoa farming or shrimp fishing, over combating food fraud in the European meat sector, or on food safety or nutritional labelling, the clamour for more transparency represents a constant and recurring theme from those representing consumer interests and petitioning for change. 

Moreover, experience continually shows greater transparency at the outset might have forestalled later problems for companies. Minute-by-minute global media scrutiny, fuelled by the power of social media, give companies no alternative but to be more transparent, even if the ethical imperative were not reason enough.

It is arguably in this context that last week’s decision by Campbell Soup Co. to back nationwide mandatory labelling for genetically modified organisms in food products in the US – and the company’s commitment to label its GM food products as such even if national mandatory regulation is not forthcoming -should be seen.

Campbell’s move is the latest and potentially game-changing development in the debate over GM labelling in the US.

Legislation scheduled to come into force in Vermont in July would mandate labelling food as containing GMOs in that state. In response, the food industry is backing the Safe and Accurate Food Labelling Act. This federal legislation, which is making its way through Congress, would create a nationwide policy of voluntary GM labelling rendering any moves by individual states, including those in Vermont, moot. 

In stating that it will label its products as containing GMOs, not only in Vermont but across the US, even if mandatory national labelling is not forthcoming, Campbell has signalled its preparedness to go well beyond compliance. 

Moreover, in so doing Campbell has not only moved ahead of US regulators but also broken ranks with its peers on one of the most contentious issues facing the food sector. 

The “beyond compliance” factor is significant. On many ethical issues, food companies readily go beyond what is legally required in the interests either of reputational enhancement or protection, or simply to be a better corporate citizen. The plaudits Campbell has received following its GM announcement from campaigners, such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Just Label and As You Sow, bear this out.

Moreover, on a host of key issues of concern, such as working conditions, the ethical treatment of suppliers and consumer protection, proactive, early movement by one or a few companies has been a key factor in bringing about changes that have eventually been positive for the wider food industry and for consumers.

Going beyond compliance is not unheard of with regard to the GM issue. Retailers have generally been more stringent regarding their GM policies than legislation would have compelled them to be, but Campbell would be the first major US food manufacturer to take this significant step.

Interestingly, other than being better informed about the Campbell products they buy, it would be argued by GM advocates that Campbell’s move leaves consumers no more or less at risk. At the heart of the GM debate is the critical question of whether GM products represent any greater risk to consumers than conventionally bred crops.

Underlining that Campbell’s move is far more about transparency and respect for consumers than it is about GM per se, the Campbell’s soup and Pepperidge Farm snacks maker has actually not demurred from the general industry line regarding GM as a technology, nor that currently taken by the US Food and Drug Administration, which is that GM products do not represent a risk to consumers.

“Campbell continues to recognise that GMOs are safe, as the science indicates that foods derived from crops grown using genetically modified seeds are not nutritionally different from other foods,” the company stated.

The move is also borne out of another concern Campbell shares with its peers and which has precipitated the industry’s support for the Safe and Accurate Food Labelling Act. The company argues a “patchwork” of different state requirements would be “incomplete, impractical and create unnecessary confusion for consumers”.

Campbell believes consumers deserve the right to be informed on the presence of GMOs, even if it is sure that they represent no risk. 

However, giving the consumer that information – and the opportunity to reject food containing GM ingredients – carries a potential disadvantage, with a critical bearing on the broader debate concerning how GM might be used in global food production.

Opponents may claim GM technology has so far failed to play the transformational role in agriculture its supporters have often promised but its potential to do so remains. 

As climate change takes hold, investment in GM will continue and those capabilities already achieved, in relation particularly to drought resistance, are likely to be of ever increasing value. As research continues, further breakthroughs are likely. The faster adaptation of food crops to changing climatic conditions that GM potentially promises is likely to become increasingly critical.

Even if GM has so far failed to deliver quite what it has promised, the potentially positive role it could play in addressing food insecurity is hard to deny. Proponents of GM would argue a permissive regulatory environment – with necessary safeguards – is therefore vital. At the same time, tighter mandatory labelling regimes, such as that which Campbell would like to see in the US, place a greater onus on proponents within the agrochemical, biotech and food sectors to communicate the benefits of GM and lack of risk.

In particular, communication about GM would have to counter what its supporters view as an irrational scepticism on the part of consumers, created in no small part by sensationalist media coverage. 

More information for consumers and greater consumer awareness may be laudable aspirations but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and this can certainly be seen in the debate over GM. If consumers react adversely to more explicit labelling – even if that reaction is irrational – the development of GM applications that could yield beneficial results may be hampered. 

Intuitively, given growing consumer awareness of issues of concern and their desire for more and better information about the food they eat, coupled with the likely increasing prevalence of GM in coming years as technological progress ensues, pressure for more explicit GM labelling seems certain to grow. If that turns out to be so, and most certainly if mandatory labelling were eventually to be introduced in the US, Campbell will have been seen to have made an extremely savvy strategic move in getting ahead of the curve, storing up potential reputational credit with consumers for the future.

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