Campbell’s Soup and the Ethics of Food Labeling

I have not blogged in some time, but I am back and here to stay. I hope to make weekly contributions here every Sunday, so stay on the edge of your seat!!!!

If you have read some of my other posts, you will know that I am not a huge fan of labeling foods which contain genetically engineered ingredients. In part because those labels are not that informative, but also because creating regulations for labeling, especially for something which is not informative, is a waste of tax payers money. Labeling itself is fine, such as including the names of allergens (milk, soy, wheat, etc.), or ingredients which could potentially harm a sub set of the population (such as phenylalanine), but labeling genetically engineered food is simply a bad idea.

The recent turn in this debate is a choice by Campbell’s Soup to include voluntary labels on their soup cans. These labels announce to the public that their soup indeed contains genetically engineered food, and they provide a link to an explanation of why it is safe to eat. Not only are they volunteering to do this, but they are also backing federal regulations, particularly in the United States, for all companies to submit to a federal standard of labeling genetically engineered products. I think this is a horrible idea, but I realize that the issue is complicated.

What Does a Label Mean?

Before I go into detail about why I think Campbell’s Soup is making a mistake, I am going to include a brief overview as to why labeling genetically engineered foods is pointless and problematic.

When a consumable product is being made, there are several stages of development all of which contain vast amounts of information. Obviously, all of this information is not something a consumer needs to know, such as the name of the person who unloaded the bananas off the truck at the grocery store from which you purchased them. Not only is this information not necessary to have, but labeling all of it would take up an inordinate amount of space. Also, this amount of information would create an informational overload, such that the information, in principle, would be unusable by the average consumer. What consumers should want is only that information which is relevant to have.

The problem, of course, is what information is it relevant for the consumer to have? There is going to be some disagreement here, given that there are a diverse range of needs, and beliefs about those needs, in the population at large.However, the consensus seems to be that we label foods based on the possible effects these products might have on those who consume them, and we only label those foods at the level which is useful. For example, labeling bananas with every chemical compound that make up a banana is not useful if the banana itself is safe to eat.

We have decided, as a society, to label the 8 ingredients which account for 90% of all food allergies, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy. We label these ingredients even when they are not necessarily in the product, (the ‘may contain’ label on food products is to alert the consumer that the product was either made in the same facility as, or made with the same equipment as, the allergen in question). We also label the basic nutritional facts, which are arguably necessary for maintaining adequate health (such as the quantity of sugar). Lastly, we label the specific ingredients which go into making a product (with some exceptions such as specific flavourings), so that those who have a rare disorder can still make sure that nothing in the food is going to have a negative effect on their health.

What Kind of Information Would Be Contained in a GMO or GE Label?

Labeling something a fruit is not useful to a consumer, since it does not tell you about the specific effects of each individual fruit. Similarly, with a blanket GMO or GE label, the labeling tells you absolutely nothing about what the food is possibly going to do to you. Even if genetically engineered corn caused tumors, which it absolutely does not, blanket labels would cover other fruits and veggies too, such as Bt brinjal, which likely would not have the same effects.

If the end product of a genetically engineered plant was actually harmful, it wouldn’t be the fact that it was genetically altered that would have the effect. After all, it is not likely that genes survive, or have any effect, when they are consumed. What would have the effect is the possible allergens created by the product, and the possible introduction of specific chemical compounds which are detrimental to human health. Of course, not all chemicals are harmful, and it is the dose that matters, but it is possible, though not likely, that engineering a crop could introduce a large quantity of chemical compounds which are indeed detrimental to human health.

The issue, is that these kind of harmful changes would be easily detected, and can be screened before the crops make it to the super market. This problem is also not specific to GE crops, since all foods, regardless of how they are manipulated (natural selection, artificial selection, mutagenesis, etc.), undergo genetic alterations. So again, what information is a GMO or GE label providing? It seems, when it comes to human health, all that needs to be labeled are those foods which have a specific effect on human health, since GMO or GE food labels lack the specificity required, it is not clear how they could be helpful in this regard.

Labeling the Process

The only reasonable position left to adopt is that the process itself is what should be labeled, such that the process has negative environmental consequences. The only problem with this line of argument is that the process isn’t any more worrying, and possibly less worrying, than some of our more frequently used breeding technologies. It is also interesting to consider that there is no ground swell of activism in favour of labeling mutagenic crops. In other words, shouldn’t all food be labeled regarding the processes in which they were made so that every consumer can make an informed environmentally friendly purchase?

If it were that simple those labels would probably already exist. Even organic labels fail to adequately capture the environmentally friendly effects of the products which are special enough to have such a designation. It is possible that different processes, have different effects, in different contexts (and environments). Which means that the label itself does little to inform the consumer about the environmental impact of the product.

Better yet, instead of labeling campaigns, why not advocate for better environment regulation, so that it removes, from the consumer, the choice to buy more damaging products in the first place? Governments already try to regulate pesticide use by what is known as Integrated Pest Management. This is a way of using the right amount of pesticides as to keep pesticide levels in the environment at a sustainable level, while also trying to improve yields and decrease mutation rates in pest species. This is a fine balance that is going to differ for each region, crop and pesticide used. Genetically engineered food helps in this case, since the use of genetically engineered foods has reduced the amount of pesticides needed, thus decreasing negative environmental effects.

If the health and environmental reasons for labeling are both non-existent, then why label? Labeling seems to be a way of manipulating the public, and this manipulation can either have good or bad intentions.

Campbell’s Decision

First, I will start by at least highlighting some good points. The labels direct customers to a website called What Is In My Food. The website does a good job of describing the ingredients in the food, and does so while explaining why they are used. At the bottom of each page the company has an addendum about genetically modified (though I prefer engineered) food, which acknowledges their safety record,

In America, approximately 90% of all canola, corn, soybean and sugar beet crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Farmers have been using these seeds for more than 20 years as they are safe, reduce costs and improve yields.

They then go on to list the ingredients in the particular product which have these specific ingredients. All of which is perfectly reasonable, and I think it is well within the companies power to make such information available to the public.

However, in their press release they also stated:

Campbell is making several key changes to its recipes and outlined plans to increase its organic offerings.

Based on feedback from parents, the company will simplify the recipes of existing condensed soups for kids, removing ingredients such as added MSG and continuing to make the soup with no preservatives, no artificial colors and no artificial flavors. The first updated range of kids soups is expected to hit U.S. shelves in August.

In other words, Campbell’s is not making a science based decision, but a marketing decision. Which is sad, given that they just said that GMO’s are perfectly safe! They are basically saying, even though genetic engineering is safe, we are going to sell our more blatantly anti-scientific customers a highly price gouged, more environmentally damaging product.

Here is where I think the big problem lies, who are Campbell’s trying to accommodate here? All those who could care less what process was used to breed the crops used in Campbell’s canned soup, will continue to eat it and not care. All those who erroneously believe organic is better are still going to perceive Campbell’s as a large evil corporation that is destroying the world and our health. By stating both that GMO’s are safe, while simultaneously increasing organic offerings, is basically Campbell’s Soup attempting to have their cake and eat it too, and I don’t think anyone is going to buy it.

Some think it is better to encourage mandatory labeling than to have governments outright ban genetically engineered food, but I don’t think this is a fair description of what is going on. The activists don’t seem to be pushing for a ban, what they are pushing for is labeling, and they assume that once labeling is in place companies will see customers leave and therefore they will stop using GMO’s in order to keep customers. Some pro-GMO activists think that mandatory labeling will make it blatantly obvious to the public at large that over 80% of the foods they eat contain genetically engineered foods, and thus they will simply accept it as a fact and not care. I would love to see how Campbell’s decision will affect their bottom line, given that only 37% of people, compared to 88% of scientists, think genetically engineered food is safe.

This decision, as any decision made by a large corporation, is a marketing decision, and we will have to wait and see whether it pays off. Many companies see labeling as inevitable and are worried that it is going to be mandated state by state. A federal standard would be far more cost effective.

The move to organic foods is another indication that this decision is not in the worlds favour, but in the companies, since it seems to be an indication not of sound science, but of public taste. As this Huff Po article highlights

Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison has been outspoken about the need for big food makers to adapt to changing tastes. The company, based in Camden, N.J., has been diversifying its packaged food lineup with offerings that are seen as fresher.

Being seen as fresh, perceived as healthy, branded as environmentally friendly etc. etc. etc. The consumer is left more confused. If the food is safe, why the shift in tastes? Why remove MSG if it is safe? Why remove artificial flavours if they are safe? Why remove preservatives if they are safe? BECAUSE THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH FOOD SAFETY.

What About Choice?

Choice is overrated, just ask psychologist Barry Schwartz. I don’t think choice is what is needed here; the outcomes, health and environmental safety, are probably far too serious to be left to the whims of consumer choice. If genetic engineering is bad, it shouldn’t be used. The decision should not be made by consumers, but by an appropriate regulatory body which has the requisite knowledge base to make appropriate decisions regarding food. Which is the ironic thing about this whole issue, most people against GMO’s don’t think the government, or the scientists, have our best interests in mind. This is why they harass public scientists, and espouse libertarian ideals.

We don’t need more choice, what we need is proper, scientifically informed, regulation. Food safety should not be left in the hands of consumers, given that health and environmental safety are essentials to living a good life. Companies, understandably, will not rally behind increased government regulations to maintain food standards, but we have the institutions already in place to make those standards better. The fight for labeling, and the manipulation of labels by companies, is only going to confuse the public more on this very important issue. It is time to stand up for science.

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