SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Food companies in the United States are getting out ahead of a pending national mandatory labelling law for genetically modified food.
Campbell Soup Co. was one of the first major food companies to break ranks and come out in support of mandatory labelling. It started printing labels on its own products in early 2016.
“Campbell took a different approach on GM labelling, much to the consternation of some in the industry,” said Kelly Johnston, the company’s vice-president of government affairs. “It’s not because we are anti-GMO. We’re not.”
The company has not transitioned away from GM food ingredients, but it felt compelled to let consumers make informed decisions about what they’re putting in their bodies.
“We’re in almost every pantry in the United States,” Johnston told delegates attending Bayer’s AgVocacy Forum. “So when consumers are starting to tell us they’re very concerned about GMOs, we knew we had to do something.”
Johnston said it is impossible to know what impact the labels have had on sales because there are a multitude of factors that influence purchase decisions. However, he believes it has had minimal impact.
“We’re not seeing a large, wholesale buying pattern change.”
The U.S. is expected to implement a mandatory GM labelling law by July 2018. Canada does not have any similar legislation.
Some groups have criticized the U.S. law because it allows companies to opt out of printing information directly on the label by providing QR codes that can be scanned with smartphones or a 1-800 number that consumers can call.
Roger Lowe, vice-president of communications with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said more than 5,100 products from 26 companies are already using QR codes or smart labels to tell consumers whether there are GM ingredients in those products.
“We are projecting that there will be 34,000 products that use this by the end of the year,” he said.
Lowe said food companies are embracing transparency.
“They know it’s the way to go,” he said. “They’re not waiting for a law to go into effect.”
He said smart labels can provide all sorts of information to consumers, not just whether the product contains GM ingredients.
For instance, they can supply warnings about potential allergens.
They also allow companies to explain what GM ingredients are and how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed them safe to consume.
Randy Russell, president of the Russell Group, an agriculture lobbying firm that influenced the design of the federal labelling law, said there are practical limitations to putting GM labels directly on food packages.
“When you pick up the average food product today, the entire food package is full of print. Where are we going to put more information?” he said.
Russell said less than half of consumers read the nutrition facts panel on food products. However, smart labels are ideal for those who are concerned about what they are eating because they can provide a plethora of information.