Consumers care about what’s in their food and how it’s produced, but not every food label or food manufacturer consistently provides them with the information they are seeking. At the recent Aspen Ideas Festival, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., the executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center moderated a panel titled “Read It And Eat: Decoding Food Labels” that included executives at two food companies leading the way in food label transparency: Jeff Dunn, the president of Campbell Soup’s Campbell Fresh Division, and Walter Robb, the co-CEO of Whole Foods.

GMO labeling is an issue both companies care about. In January,Campbell became the first major food company to announce that it will disclose the presence of GMOs on all of its products and that it would support federal legislation for mandatory GMO labeling standards. By 2018, Whole Foods is aiming to have all of the products sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores labeled if they contain GMOs. According to the company, Whole Foods sells non-GMO-verified products from more than 250 brands, more than any other retailer in North America.

Whole Foods’ mission has long been to be transparent about what’s in the products they sell, while Campbell is starting to integrate more initiatives to provide transparency about their foods, Rangan notes. “You can’t go from zero to 100 overnight but it’s good to see big companies moving in the right direction,” she says.

GMO discussions are timely because on July 1, a law that requires GMO labeling takes effect in Vermont (althoughCongress may still vote to block the law). But meaningful food labeling is about a lot more than GMOs. A December 2015 nationally-representative survey of 1,000 adults from the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that a range of issues are important to consumers when they shop for food. Reducing pesticide exposure, protecting the environment from chemicals, and supporting local farmers all ranked higher than avoiding GMOs in the Consumer Reports survey. 

Key Issues

The panel discussed a number of food labeling issues and what the government and the food industry can do to foster more change. Here are some highlights from their conversation in Aspen.

What makes a good label? A food label has to have three things says Robb: A real standard, a third party certification, and a reasonable label claim that’s easy for a customer to understand. It’s not just up to food companies to provide this though. Robb says change must be driven through a partnership between the government and the private sector.

Selling organic is good business. “We’re in a tectonic food revolution. All the growth in the industry has shifted to organics,” says Robb, noting that supermarket sales of organic foods are up double digits while sales of conventional foods are down. Consumers are driving that change and demanding better labeling. “People want to know where their food is coming from. If you don’t move in this direction, you’re going to lose business, you’re going to lose market share,” says Robb.

Still, it costs 15 to 25 percent more to produce organic food and margins are smaller, says Dunn. But he predicts that will change. “To be successful, you have to take the long view. Margins will grow over time as we build scale,” says Dunn.

The unintended consequences of expiration labels. On package best by, sell by, and use by dates prompt consumers to throw out food, often unnecessarily, Dunn notes. Many consumers are confused by these dates but there are no federal regulations that provide a standard. Dunn says we need a better system. “With food insecurity there’s no reason we should be throwing away good food,” says Dunn.

The next big food labeling issue: Animal welfare. Both Robb and Dunn say there is a lot of pressure in the market now to provide consumers clear information on how animals are treated in the food-making process. “We’re moving from ingredient-based transparency to a systems-based transparency,” says Robb.