Campbell Soup Co., which makes a variety of foods including the namesake soups and Prego pasta sauce, has declared its intent to put labels on its foods, noting they are "partially produced with genetic engineering."
Some are lamenting this will be a slippery slope to process labels being used as warnings, and undermining confidence in modern agriculture, while anti-science groups are hailing it as a victory. US Right To Know, an outreach group funded by organic food corporations and aided by the partisan attack site SourceWatch, is certainly declaring this a big win for its clients.
But is it? Or is it just a company cynically taking advantage of fear and doubt to make money the same way organic marketing does?
It's neither. It is instead a marketing and policy move so savvy it will be taught in business schools for decades to come. Here are three reasons why:
1. No one worried about GMOs is eating Campbell's Soup. It's "processed" food.
So any cans bought by the organic market as a show of support is a net gain, and Campbell Soup Co. has been basically flat in revenue for the last few years. This means it has upside. While some efforts to capitalize on activism fail -- General Mills is unlikely to try again after they caved into Green America and made Cheerios GMO-free, which sent sales down rather than up -- it will work for Campbell's because it is a different strategy. Campbell's Soup "broke ranks," say lawyers for environmental groups, and looks transparent and progressive, rather than gimmicky, all without removing a thing from their food.
2. Campbell Soup Co. now has the very people who hate them defending them.
Yogic flying instructor Jeffrey Smith, Marion Nestle, Dr. Oz, and others who are suspicious about the science of food, certainly are not going to buy Campbell's Soup for themselves, except they now must defend it, or they are being hypocrites.
The company is doing exactly what anti-science critics wanted. Along with US Right To Know, Just Label It and Environmental Working Group all consider this a win for its side and they are giving the company a lot of free publicity.
This is the equivalent of Oscar Mayer wieners getting an endorsement from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) after their UN report said hot dogs were as hazardous to health as cigarette smoking.
3. No one who understands science is going to stop eating Campbell Soup.
Will the pro-science side resent having it on the label at all? Jon Entine, who runs Genetic Literacy Project, said over lunch that there seemed to be a lot of Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement going on about labeling even though science seems to have won the war against agriculture that has been waged by environmental groups.
No, it is the free market at work.
I have argued that GMO labeling, and GMOs in general, stopped being a science issue long ago, and remain just a marketing one. The science on the safety of GMOs is settled and I have long said that if there were a good reason for labeling, the free market would find it regardless of what government does. Gluten-free food is certainly not needed for 99 percent of the public but it has become a $5 billion industry by slapping gluten-free labels on meat. And clearly Non-GMO Project will verify anything if the check clears, including rock salt.
Neither of those needed government fiat to succeed and on labeling the free market is now speaking. Campbell Soup Co. wants more market share and if they see a chance to get into a new segment using a clever marketing tactic, I am all for it. And it doesn't need to pay Non-GMO Project a penny.
They also get to be heroes to the agricultural opposition without alienating any scientifically literate parents, and without changing a single thing about their product, which is good for perception. They secure the future by simultaneously endorsing mandatory labeling they know will never happen and providing their own innocuous version of labeling to show politicians that the private sector is being proactive and no laws are needed. Campbell's CEO Denise Morrison said as much, that they were simply responding to market forces, and heading off wacky GMO labeling by individual states.
The pro-science side may not like what this move by Campbell's symbolizes, but we have to respect the strategy.