Past as Prologue: What the Campbell’s Execs Forgot About Organic Labels

Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project

[Insert George Santayana quote here]

Steven Novella over at the Neurologica blog, follows up on Campbell’s decision to label their products made using genetic engineered products, even if there is no mandated nationwide standard.

He first talks about the lack of science for labels.

“The very notion of GMOs is a false dichotomy. Opponents then argue that transgenic GMOs, using genes from distant species that could not mix in nature, is different than the other methods. This is factually wrong and logically dubious.

“First, horizontal gene transfer allows for genes from other kingdoms to mix into plants and even animals. In fact it was recently discovered that most sweet potatoes today have a gene derived from a soil bacteria, incorporated naturally thousands of years ago.”

Then he lays out what he calls “The Practical and Political Case”:

“Campbell is essentially concluding that the anti-GMO activists have won on this issue, and their only choice as a company is to go with it. If they oppose GMO labeling, then they can be portrayed as hiding something and being against consumer choice.”

The agony antis will then press their winning on this front and move the discussion to marginalizing and then banning products derived from GE from U.S. markets.

“All of the government and scientific caveats about why food with GMOs are being labeled will be forgotten, and anti-GMO ideologues will use the mandatory labeling to argue that GMOs are not safe.”

He points out that before there was a national label for “organic”:

“The USDA resisted an official organic label for years, based on scientific grounds. There is no evidence that organic produce is safer, healthier, or more nutritious, and so labeling will confer no benefit to the consumer.

“They eventually relented to the argument that they could have a limited organic label, and explain to the public that the label is not a claim for any superiority, it only has to do with the method or production not the final product, and only serves the purpose of standardizing the use of the term ‘organic.’ Their efforts were utterly futile.” [emphasis is mine]

Here’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the organic label is:
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods…and “must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent…USDA certified organic labels indicate that the producer followed a process. The label does not say it is healthier or better for people or the land, only that a process was followed.

It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

Since we are talking about the future, the result where consumers have forgotten the caveats about the safety of the food system and the equivalency of genetically enhanced products, and they will only remember the overly-simplistic message (complete with syringes in tomatoes) that GMOs are bad and Monsanto is evil, is a guess. But given the past performances of the foodists, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Novella’s full piece, “Should There Be Mandatory GMO Labeling? is well worth reading in full.

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What Campbell’s Got Right and Wrong in Their GMO Label Announcement

Campbell’s announcement coincided with the new U.S. government’s eating guidelines; “Campbell Announces Support for Mandatory GMO Labeling.”
“Genetic engineering,” California’s legislative analyst wrote in 2012, “is the process of changing the genetic material of a living organism to produce some desired change in that organisms characteristics.” In other words, GE is not an ingredient, like hydrogenated vegetable oil, it’s a technology, a method, that uses existing genes to produce useful plants and animals, such as E. coli which produce life-saving human insulin.

The announcement was hailed by supporters of labeling of all genetically engineered crops and by some GMO supporters, such as Mark Lynas, as well.

Here’s what I think they got right…and what I think they got wrong with their announcement:

Right

  • Campbell did not say they were removing ingredients that were made using the bioengineering.  This is quite different from companies that try to appease the foodists that want their foods “natural” through removing all genetically enhanced products or removing strange sounding chemicals.
  • Campbell cited science and research in the safety of its use in their products. “Campbell continues to recognize 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 also believes technology will play a crucial role in feeding the world.”

Wrong

  • Campbell wants all food products to be labeled under a nationwide standard. “Campbell believes it is necessary for the federal government to provide a national standard for labeling requirements to better inform consumers about this issue. The company will advocate for federal legislation that would require all foods and beverages regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be clearly and simply labeled for GMOs. Campbell is also supportive of a national standard for non-GMO claims made on food packaging.”
    I have no qualm with any company choosing to voluntarily label their product as having ingredients that were produced using GE. But they want to force other companies to also label their products. If they think their voluntary label will gain them customers, go for it.
  • Campbell relied on dodgy statistics to make their case. They use the figure that 92 percent of consumers want to know if a product contains a GMO ingredient. “With 92 percent of Americans supporting the labeling of GMO foods…” A big problem with that number is it is highly inflated. When asked, “What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already on there?”, only 7 percent listed GMO’s as a concern, hardly a groundswell of interest. After all, when pollsters asked those surveyed if they would like DNA in their food, 80% said they wanted DNA listed. (Note: any living thing plant, animal, or undecided contains DNA–deoxyribonucleic acid)

Too Close to Call

  • Perhaps Campbell thinks that labels will be like the Prop 65 signs. In California, Proposition 65 signs are ubiquitous.  You will find the signs at supermarkets, hotels, motels, gas stations, coffee shops, restaurants, to name but a few businesses. They are so frequent and in so many places that they have lost any value. No one pays attention to them. When everything everywhere contains something that at certain exposures over time causes cancer, well, it loses any value as a warning and is simply part of the landscape.This argument has some validity. The difference is that the chemicals listed by the California EPA have some toxicity to humans. All the GMO foods on market shelves have no more, and sometimes less toxicity, than the food they are part of.
Disneyland Prop 65 Warning

Disneyland Prop 65 Warning sign by Patrick Pelletier – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org

More information:

Campbell Announces Support for Mandatory GMO Labeling (http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160107006458/en/)
The Choices behind our Food (http://www.whatsinmyfood.com/the-choices-behind-our-food/)
Why we support mandatory national GMO labeling (http://www.campbellsoupcompany.com/newsroom/news/2016/01/07/labeling/)
Food from Genetically Engineered Plants (http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/GEPlants/default.htm)

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Is Campbell’s Soup Company’s GMO Announcement Hot or Cold?

WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is linked to a variety of diseases that affect both animals and humans. It is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.

Yesterday, January 7, 2015, the Campbell’s Soup Company announced that it wants federal legislation for mandatory labeling of products containing GMO ingredients. Scientists create GM foods through transgenic methods or other gene manipulation. Organisms that have had their genes altered are termed Genetically Modified (GM or GMO).

Campbell Soup Company (NYSE: CPB) today announced its support for the enactment of federal legislation to establish a single mandatory labeling standard for foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Should a national standard fail, Campbell said that they were willing, in order to be completely transparent, to go it alone. “Campbell is prepared to label all of its U.S. products for the presence of ingredients that were derived from GMOs…”

They pointed out that the reason for this action was not because they felt GE ingredients were unsafe.

We are comfortable using these genetically modified crops because scientists and the FDA, who have been studying genetic engineering for many years, agree that food ingredients made with these methods are safe and aren’t different from other ingredients. Click here to learn more.

Nonetheless they said they thought people wanted to know.

We are operating with a “Consumer First” mindset. We put the consumer at the center of everything we do….We have always believed that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food. GMO has evolved to be a top consumer food issue reaching a critical mass of 92% of consumers in favor of putting it on the label.

Never mind that the 92% poll number comes from people being prompted specifically about GMOs. The number nosedives to a rockbottom 7% when people were asked what should be listed on a food label. Heck, 80% of people polled want mandatory labeling of DNA when they are asked directly if DNA in their food should be labeled (thus the warning label at the top on the page).

“Despite the $29 billion organic food industry claiming the majority of the public wants labels about genetic modification on food, a scant 7 percent mentioned GM ingredients when they were asked what is important for them to read on a label,” Hank Campbell, now the President of the American Council on Science and Health, wrote in Science 2.0. I don’t mean to belittle people on this issue. I want to make the point that people are more interested in their daily affairs but when prompted they want a lot of stuff. They say they want more legroom when flying, but when they purchase airline tickets they vote with their wallets. They want it labeled if it doesn’t cost them anything.

“Despite the $29 billion organic food industry claiming the majority of the public wants labels about genetic modification on food, a scant 7 percent mentioned GM ingredients when they were asked what is important for them to read on a label.”

Campbell’s example of label. “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about GMO ingredients visit www.whatsinmyfood.com”

Why should I, or you, care about labels on Campbell’s Soup products? What does a food label campaign have to do with the environment? Agriculture, the raising of our food and fiber, occupies nearly 40% of earths’ 13 billion hectares of land. The addition of pesticides or fertilizers (whether organic or conventional all farms use some form of both) can result in runoff that can foul our waters. GE crops use less fertilizer, less land, less pesticide. A technology that has not caused so much as a tummy-ache (nocebo effects notwithstanding) and has freed up land with less runoff of fertilizer or pesticide ought to be embraced not shunned by every environmentalist. GMO labeling has had a chilling effect on sales in Europe, virtually vegetable non gratin there (pun intended).

More information:
Campbell Announces Support for Mandatory GMO Labeling (http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160107006458/en/)
The Choices behind our Food (http://www.whatsinmyfood.com/the-choices-behind-our-food/)
Why we support mandatory national GMO labeling (http://www.campbellsoupcompany.com/newsroom/news/2016/01/07/labeling/)
Food from Genetically Engineered Plants (http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/GEPlants/default.htm)

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