The Campbell Soup Company just announced its intent to join the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), a trade group representing the $3.1 billion plant-based foods sector.

The announcement follows Campbell’s decision earlier this year to leave the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a move mainly driven by conflicts over GMO labeling on products.

It’s one of several moves the soup giant has taken over the last few years in terms of answering consumer demand for healthier, more sustainable food products. In 2012, Campbell acquired Bolthouse Farms, and it has also moved into selling cold-pressed juices.

Meanwhile, the PBFA’s chief aim is to “ensure a fair and competitive marketplace for businesses selling plant-based foods.” Its member list is currently 88 companies strong and includes brands like Tofurky, New Wave Foods, and 22 Days Nutrition.

Campbell is the first major food company to join PBFA. It’s an obvious win for the plant-based foods sector, which grew 8.1 percent over the last year. The inclusion of a major food brand on its roster could also give the organization extra strength when it comes to opposing things like The Dairy Pride Act, which wants to ban non-dairy products like soymilk from using terms like “milk” and “yoghurt” on their labels.

That said, a lot of Campbell products wouldn’t qualify as “healthy” by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, under its Bolthouse brand, the company now manufactures plant-based milk. But Campbell also makes Goldfish crackers and packs extremely large amounts of sodium into its soups. It’s rather doubtful that joining the PBFA will change any of those types of products anytime soon. Rather, Campbell appears to be stressing the idea of consumer choice. As Campbell Fresh president Ed Carolan recently stated, “Working together with the Plant Based Foods Association, we can advance our shared goal of bringing more plant-based foods to consumers.”

So is the move to PBFA true commitment from Campbell to cleaner eating and more sustainable food production? Or is it just a case of a major food manufacturer dabbling in a particularly hot trend?

It’s probably both. In an ideal world, any major food manufacturer would make such moves out of pure principle and concern over consumer welfare. In reality, Campbell is a business, and businesses need to move products. More and more consumers are seeking healthier options for meals and snacks than ever before, and I can think of worse bandwagons to jump on in order to keep Wall Street happy.

Ultimately, it’s the products themselves that will tell us the most. Campbell will need more than just plant-based milk to convince us of its commitment to clean eating. I could see the company acquiring more brands like Bolthouse in the future, or working to reinvent some concepts around packaged snacks like Goldfish crackers.

If nothing else, the move will further fuel conversation about the role major food brands play in consumers’ lives and how much responsibility they should assume in terms of making healthy foods widely available. In this area, at least, Campbell’s has taken way bigger steps than most.

Image courtesy of flickr.

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