The company will follow the standards set by Vermont’s labeling law until a national standard is set.
Vermont started a revolution, and its effects will soon spread across the country. No, we aren’t talking about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee but the 2014 law passed by state legislators mandating the voluntary labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. The new regulations are set to go into effect on July 1, and with a federal political solution proving elusive, one of the biggest food companies in the game now says it will label all its products, nationwide, in accordance with tiny Vermont’s law.
“We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers, and we simply won’t do that,” Jeff Harmening, head of U.S. retail operations at General Mills, wrote on the company’s website Friday. “The result: Consumers all over the country will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills food products.”
The Minnesota-based company joins Campbell’s in being among the major food companies that have broken ranks with the industry’s strong opposition to mandatory labeling laws.
While General Mills has made incremental changes, such as tweaking its Cheerios formula to replace a few minor ingredients with non-GMO versions, company leadership stood staunchly against mandatory labeling in the past.
“Consumers tell us—and I think they’re right—they want to know about the ingredients, nutrition information, and safety things like peanuts. They need to know these things,” chairman and CEO Kendall Powell said at the Fortune Brainstorm Green event in 2013. “But we should restrict the use of that label to these important things. If we broaden it to other things, we’ll have to add pages to the label. We don’t think we should do that.”
The mockups of Campbell’s labels that conform to the Vermont labeling law suggest that the changes are rather minor. Below the ingredients list is a new line that reads, “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about G.M.O. ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com.”
General Mills contributed $1.2 million to the failed “No on 37” campaign in 2012, when California voted on a ballot initiative that would have required mandatory labeling in the state. General Mills has lent its financial weight to campaigns fighting against similar ballot initiatives in other states, including Washington and Oregon. As a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, it has been involved in lobbying efforts to pass a federal law that would supersede state laws like Vermont’s and establish a voluntary labeling standard. The most recent version of such a bill failed to pass a procedural hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday.
But even as Harmening announced that General Mills would label GMOs on all products, he made it clear that the company “will continue advocating for a national solution to GMO communications to consumers.” When asked if General Mills would now support a federal law that requires mandatory label, such as the bill recently introduced in the Senate by Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a company spokesperson dodged the question.
Pro-labeling groups, while supportive of the news, are saying much the same.
“Senators on both sides of this issue now need to realize that the marketplace is moving far faster than our legislators, and that the time has come to enact uniform mandatory legislation that makes it easy for consumers to see at a glance whether their foods contain GMOs,” Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of Just Label It, said in a statement. “If large companies like General Mills and Campbell’s are accepting that this is what consumers want, then so should our political representatives. It is now time to put this debate behind us and realize that the citizens have spoken.”