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Campbell's soup became the first Big Food company to announce that they would be labeling their products if they contain GMOs. - 

Campbell Soup Co. now backs mandatory labeling of GMO ingredients, the first major American food-manufacturer to do so. The maker of products including soups, Pepperidge Farm cookies and Prego pasta sauces says that if the federal government doesn’t put a national standard in place, it will move unilaterally to label its products.

For a long time, Big Food has fought against GMO labeling, saying it’s expensive and confusing, while citing scientific evidence showing GMOs are safe. An upcoming Vermont law requires GMO labeling. The industry’s nightmare is having to make different labels for different states. Food companies, including Campbell, have been in overdrive fighting that scenario, pushing instead for voluntary GMO labels. Campbell is now significantly breaking with its peers.

For years, food companies and their pricey lobbyists moaned that mandatory GMO labeling would be exceptionally difficult. Campbell says that’s no longer the case for its company. It has already gathered up GMO data for its website.

“The execution, on a national basis, of changing labels and flowing those through our supply chain and getting them onto the shelf is very straightforward,” said Mark Alexander, president of the company’s Americas Simple Meals and Beverages division. “We do this every day of the week as part of our business.”

For Campbell, the move is a chance to get some street cred by stepping forward on an issue certain people care about. This comes at a time when the company needs to show Wall Street it can do well outside canned food, a product out of favor with many Americans. Campbell says its U.S. soup sales were down three percent recently.

And if the move helps short circuit the Vermont law and others like, it could save the company the money and hassle of complying with differing state laws. The high-profile position Campbell is taking could lead other big food companies to reconsider their own stances on GMO labeling.

“It’s a big deal because it’s breaking ranks with everyone else,” said John Stanton is a Saint Joseph’s University food marketing professor who has worked with many big food companies, including Campbell some years back. “I think it can make a big difference.”

But there’s also risk in sticking its neck out. Being open about GMO ingredients calls attention to them, which will turn some shoppers off.

For now, Campbell execs say they’re fine with the risks. It’ll be up to shoppers to prove them right or wrong.

Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark