Last year the fight to label GMOs was in the news almost monthly, and 2016 is starting out with another big GMO labeling story — a positive one for those who want the right to know what's in their food. Yesterday The Campbell Soup Company announced its support for mandatory GMO labeling and its withdrawal from supporting anti-labeling opposition.

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.

The company maintains the position that foods made with genetically modified organisms are safe to eat, stating that science indicates "foods derived from crops grown using genetically modified seeds are not nutritionally different from other foods." Campbell's is calling for mandatory labeling because it wants to give consumers more information about how their products are made. But that's not its only reason for calling for federal legislation.

The company would like a federal standard because it opposes a "patchwork of state-by-state labeling laws." It believes that if each state created its own standards, those standards would be "incomplete, impractical and create unnecessary confusion for consumers."

Currently, Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law is the only individual state law, and is set to go into effect July of this year. However, the law is being legally opposed, and there's the possibility that the legal battle will delay its implementation. Additionally, if the federal Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act — dubbed the DARK Act by GMO labeling proponents — is signed into law, the states' right to require GMO labeling would be taken away. The act passed the House last July, but has not come up in the Senate yet.

spaghettios-gmo-labelA mockup of what the GMO labeling on a can of Spaghettios would look like under the proposed Vermont labeling law. Campbell's would like a mandatory federal standard for GMO labeling so it wouldn't have to create different labels for different states. (Photo: Campbell's)

Campbell's support for mandatory GMO labeling on a federal level is likely to influence the state-by-state issue. The Camden, New Jersey, company has annual sales of more than $8 billion (that's a lot of influence) and makes much more than soup. The labels under Campbell's include Goldfish crackers' maker Pepperidge Farm, Arnott's, Kjeldsens, Royal Dansk, V8, Bolthouse Farms, Plum Organics, Swanson, Prego and Pace.

What if the federal government doesn't pass a mandatory labeling law? Campbell's says it will voluntarily label GMOs on packaging anyway. The company is prepared to label all of its U.S. products for GMOs if a mandatory labeling law is not passed in a "reasonable amount of time." It would "seek guidance from the FDA and approval by USDA" in doing so.

Last fall, the CEO of Campbell's Denise Morrison was interviewed at the 2015 James Beard Food Conference. I attended the conference and heard her speak about her dream of making healthier, more affordable food accessible to consumers. She also spoke of the company's purpose and how working with people from Bolthouse and Plum Organics has helped the company shape its purpose, which is now summed up in statement, "Real food that matter for life's moments." She did not hint about this particular GMO announcement, but after listening to the entire interview, the announcement may not be as big of a surprise at it seems.

When Morrison was announced, the other journalists at my table were baffled by her inclusion. The James Beard Food Conference is not the place you'd expect to find the CEO of a major processed foods company. I was a bit surprised, too, but perhaps not as surprised as the other journalists.

I've mentioned before that I live about 10 miles away from Camden, where Campbell's is headquartered. I'm aware of the company's involvement in the city that is one of the most impoverished in the country. In fact, in 2013, Campbell's was named one of the 100 most sustainable companies in the world for both its operations and for its involvement with local communities.

Campbell's works with the Food Bank of South Jersey in several ways, including the creation of Just Peachy Salsa. The salsa is made from local peaches that would otherwise go to waste, and the proceeds from the sale benefit the food bank. The company is also highly supportive of the community gardens in the city of Camden. Those are only two of the many things Campbell's does to give back to the city, and it has similar initiatives in cities all over the country.

When I think about what I already knew about Campbell's before the James Beard Food Conference and what I heard from the CEO at the conference, I'll say that while yesterday's GMO labeling announcement was surprising, it was not shocking. I'm pleased that Campbell's is taking a lead in the GMO labeling issue.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Campbell's calls for mandatory GMO labeling, breaks from big food's position
Even if the federal government doesn't require it, the company will label GMOs on its soups, Goldfish crackers, Pace salsa and more.