Stakeholder Trends and Insights
Mars, ConAgra, Kellogg Jump on Big Food Bandwagon to Label GMOs

The U.S. Senate might be waiting to make a decision regarding the labeling of genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients, but Big Food companies are not. This week, Mars, Incorporated, ConAgra Foods, and The Kellogg Co. jumped on the bandwagon with pledges to label their products for GMOs nationwide.

Back in January, Campbell Soup was the first to announce a nationwide GMO labeling commitment, and urged the federal government to enact nationwide requirements to avoid a ‘patchwork’ of state laws. On March 16, federal legislation to nullify GMO labeling stalled in Congress, when both supporters (49 votes) and opponents (48 votes) of the bill failed to reach the necessary 60 votes to advance the bill in the U.S. Senate. Now, the Senate is in the midst of a recess, with decision-making resumes in early April.

“Disappointed that a national solution has still not been reached,” executive vice president Jeff Harmening announced on March 18 that General Mills, too, would disclose GMO ingredients nationwide. While the company did not declare support for mandatory nationwide labeling, it did insist that “a national solution” is needed.

Similarly, ConAgra Foods urged “Congress to pass a national solution as quickly as possible,” in a statement released earlier this week, adding that “addressing state-by-state labeling requirements adds significant complications and costs for food companies. With a multitude of other states currently considering different GMO labeling requirements, the need for a national, uniform approach in this area is as critical as ever.”

Kellogg North America’s President Paul Norman joined the call to the government, stating on Wednesday, “We will continue to strongly urge Congress to pass a uniform, federal solution for the labeling of GMOs. In fact, we believe an agreement on one is achievable. But until a federal solution is reached, and in order to comply with Vermont’s labeling law, we will start labeling some of our products nationwide for the presence of GMOs beginning in mid-to-late April. We chose nationwide labeling because a special label for Vermont would be logistically unmanageable and even more costly for us and our consumers.”

Norman also stressed that the company “believes in transparency,” and noted the launch of OpenForBreakfast.com, a website “where consumers can ask questions about [Kellogg’s] food – including whether a particular product contains GMO ingredients,” that is similar to the Ask.GeneralMills.com site that General Mills launched with its labeling announcement.

The influence of “Vermont's looming labeling mandate,” as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has called it, is not to be understated. It has been clear in each corporate announcement for national labeling that the small state’s law has been a key driver.

Mars’ short statement on GMO labeling explains, “In 2014, the state of Vermont passed a mandatory genetically modified (GM) ingredient labeling law that requires most human food products containing GM ingredients to include on-pack labeling as of July 2016.

“To comply with that law, Mars is introducing clear, on-pack labeling on our products that contain GM ingredients nationwide.”

ConAgra’s news release simply stated, “ConAgra Foods will begin adding labels to products nationwide by July 2016 to meet Vermont’s GMO labeling requirements.”

Labeling according to Vermont’s law may not be sufficient for companies to avoid legal issues in other states if a national resolution is not reached. Industry-backed group The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF) explained, “What remains to be seen … is what happens if other states reject these labels as inaccurate or misleading, or implement laws requiring slightly different labeling language.” CFSAF has repeatedly asserted that consumers, farmers and companies will be forced to pay the price of resulting legal issues, recently stating, “Unfortunately, it's happening as a law established by a state with 600,000 people is dictating the labeling for 300 million people.”

All of the companies firmly ‘stand behind’ the health and safety of all of their products, including those with genetically modified ingredients. Mars’ statement noted that “Food developed through biotechnology has been studied extensively and judged safe by a broad range of regulatory agencies, scientists, health professionals, and other experts around the world.”

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