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Campbell Soup is joining the vegetarians

The entrance to the Campbell Soup Co. headquarters in Camden, N.J. (Bryan Thomas/Copyright 2017 The New York Times)

American shoppers have made their preferences clear over the past decade when it comes to too much sugar and too much salt, and the food industry has been doing its best to keep up.

Campbell Soup Co. has gone further than most. In 2012, it acquired Bolthouse Farms, which sells bagged carrots and salad dressings, and in 2015 bought salsa and hummus maker Garden Fresh Gourmet. This summer, in perhaps its boldest move yet, the maker of Prego sauces, Pepperidge Farms cookies, and those iconic red and white soup cans left the industry's top trade and lobbying group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Campbell cited the lobbying group's opposition to labeling whether food contained genetically modified ingredients.

On Monday, Oct. 30, another shoe dropped. Campbell Soup announced it was joining the Plant Based Foods Association-a major gesture by an industry giant acknowledging retreating consumer demand for meat and dairy heavy food.

"We are committed to providing our consumers with food choices that meet their nutrition, well-being, and lifestyle needs," said Ed Carolan, president of Campbell Fresh, the division that includes both the Garden Fresh Gourmet and Bolthouse Farms lines. "Working together with the Plant Based Foods Association, we can advance our shared goal of bringing more plant-based foods to consumers."

Although Campbell's departure from the GMA means leaving the company of Kraft Foods, Cargill, and Coca-Cola, its new friends include such companies as the Tofurky Company, Daiya Foods, and Beanfields Snacks. The soupmaker stressed that its decision to part ways with the GMA wasn't linked to its decision to join the PBFA, and there's no indication that its soups and other products, including meat and dairy, will change. Rather, the company hopes the partnership with PBFA will help it expand access to its plant-based offerings.

In an emailed statement Monday, GMA spokesman Roger Lowe said the group regretted Campbell Soup's departure, though he added that "it was GMA's leadership that helped achieve passage in 2016 of a national standard for GMO disclosure."

For the PBFA, Campbell's membership is a coup. While it counts more than 80 companies as members, Campbell Soup is by far its largest. "We're thrilled that they're the first major [consumer packaged goods] company," says Michael Lynch, a PBFA board member and vice president of marketing at Daiya, a dairy-free cheese maker. Although he wouldn't specify which other companies PBFA is eyeing, he said it's in talks with "a number of large CPG companies." (Nestle announced last week it would follow Campbell in leaving the GMA.)

Ultimately, both Campbell's and PBFA have the same goal: sell more products. The market appears to be ready. Some 22 percent of meat-eating consumers said they're trying to eat less meat, says Isabel Morales, consumer insights manager at Nielsen. The $3.1 billion plant-based food market increased 8.1 percent in the last year, while total foods sold in the same supermarket aisles, including deli, dairy, and frozen, declined 0.2 percent, according to data from Nielsen commissioned by the PBFA and the Good Food Institute.

"Plant-based foods and proteins are not exclusive to vegetarian and vegan households any longer," Morales said.

Although the focus for PBFA and Campbell's is on increasing consumer access and sales, their policy concerns dovetail, too. The PBFA has been actively opposing the Dairy Pride Act, a dairy industry effort to keep nondairy products from using such terms as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Even prior to Monday's announcement, Campbell's in-house counsel had worked with PBFA on that effort, which makes sense: Bolthouse launched its Plant Protein Milk line in September.

Despite the well-worn stereotype of the proselytizing vegetarian, though, Lynch says the PBFA isn't trying to take the chicken out of chicken soup or the beef out of beef vegetable.

"We're not trying to make the whole world vegan," he says. "All we're doing is trying to make plant-based products available to more people."

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