On July 1, a law that requires labels on genetically engineered food takes effect in Vermont, but even before then, consumers across the U.S. will start seeing the words “produced with genetic engineering” or “partially produced with genetic engineering” on cans of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, bags of M&Ms, and a large number of other packaged foods.

That’s because Campbell Soup Company and Mars—along with Con Agra, General Mills, and Kellogg—recently announced they’d be labeling the genetically engineered food they produce nationwide, rather than labeling their products just for Vermont. Dannon, too, has said that it will label GMOs in its products by December 2017—or sooner, “if one state implements a GMO labeling requirement.”

For its Danimals, Dannon, and Okios brands, the company has also pledged to work towards including more non-GMO ingredients in its products. Within three years, the company says that cows that provide milk for its products will be given non-GMO feed.

And according to our colleagues at Consumerist, PepsiCo appears to be quietly putting GMO labels on their products. “Partially produced with genetic engineering” has been spotted on cans of Pepsi in New Hampshire and on bags of Lay’s Potato Chips in Yonkers, New York. (Frito-Lay is a subsidiary of PepsiCo.)

“These changes amount to a major win for consumers’ right to know what’s in their food,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

These announcements represent a significant shift in the food industry’s position towards the labeling of genetically engineered food, also called GMO labeling. Led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), these companies and others have pushed in the courts and in Congress to block Vermont’s law and prevent other states from initiating their own mandatory GMO labeling measures. But in January, Campbell said that it was dropping its opposition to national mandatory GMO labeling and that it would voluntarily label its products nationwide.

The other food companies made their announcements or changes to their labels after the Senate rejected a bill on March 16 that would have overturned Vermont’s law.

“The Vermont law will serve as a de facto nationwide labeling law,” says Billy Roberts, senior analyst for food and drink at the market research firm Mintel. “Companies aren’t going to label products for just one state.”

Indeed, many of the companies made that same point in their announcements. For example, Mars said: “Addressing state-by-state labeling requirements adds significant complications and costs for food companies.”

Jeff Harmening an executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. retail at General Mills was even more blunt. Writing on the company’s blog, he said “We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that.” 

Meeting Consumers’ Expectations

Surveys, including those conducted by Consumer Reports, show that as many as 92 percent of consumers support labeling genetically engineered food. And in their statements, many of the companies noted consumers’ desire for more transparency about the foods they eat. But no one knows whether revealing to consumers that there are GMOs in their foods will make them less likely to purchase them.

“The majority of consumers want less processed foods,” says Mintel’s Roberts. “GMO foods may fly in the face of that, but it’s possible that consumers may not be opposed to them, and just want to know what’s in the products they buy.”

Food producers like Campbell have done some research to learn whether consumers will keep buying foods once they carry GMO labeling.

“We can’t predict what consumers will do at the shelf but we know the majority are in favor of labeling,” says Campbell spokesperson Carla Burigatto. “There are reports that have looked at some countries where products were labeled and it had little impact on sales, and we also looked at response to our digital disclosure on whatsinmyfood.com [a Campbell website], which did not impact sales. Ultimately, though, we felt this was about being transparent, and consumers said they wanted this information.”

It’s a difficult point to get an accurate read on, though. A 2015 University of Vermont study that looked at the attitudes of 2,000 Vermont residents towards GMOs found consumers don’t view GMO labels as a warning. But a Mintel report found that three out of five people who look for “free from” claims when they shop for food put "no GMOs" in the top five claims they seek out. And according to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans say they believe that eating GM foods is unsafe and half sometimes or always look to see if foods are genetically modified.

Some marketing experts believe consumers’ connection to a brand may influence their buying habits. “Consumers want to form a relationship with an organization and have a feeling that they can trust and rely on them,” says Diane M. Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who has extensively studied consumer behavior as it relates to sustainability-related labeling (GMO labeling is part of this). “They may be more willing to trust companies that label their products as containing GMOs and punish those that don’t by not buying their products.”