On July 1, Vermont’s law requiring labeling of GMO (genetically modified) foods goes into effect. Already, you see the words “produced with genetic engineering” on the labels of a few foods, such as M&M’s and Lay’s Potato Chips. Yet the fight to prevent mandatory GMO labeling continues in the U.S. Senate. Some Senators support mandatory labeling. Others have floated the idea of using QR codes on food packaging to provide consumers with information about GMOs in the product as a compromise. QR (quick response) codes are a type of bar code that looks like a bunch of little black squares within a white square. You scan them with a smartphone and you’re connected to a website or provided with information about the product. Voluntary QR codes are what some in the food industry, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, are lobbying for. In the Senate, there are supporters of both voluntary and mandatory QR codes. Either way, Consumer Reports does not believe that QR codes are a workable replacement for on-package GMO labeling. Here’s why:
- Few people use QR codes. Just 16 percent of consumers have ever scanned a QR code for any purpose, according to a survey of 800 Americans by the research firm The Mellman Group. And while you might notice QR codes on a package, you wouldn’t necessarily know that scanning one would give you information about GMOs in the product.
- Not everyone has a smartphone. Almost three quarters of people over the age of 65, half of people living in rural areas, and half of those making less than $30,000 a year lack smart phones. “QR code labeling discriminates against the poor, minorities, rural populations, and the elderly,” says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety, one of the consumer rights organizations that together with Consumer Reports commissioned the survey. And even if you have a smart phone, QR codes are difficult to scan and cell reception isn’t always reliable, so you may not be able to connect to the website in the moment you want information on a particular food.
- You’d have to scan every item in your shopping cart. Imagine this: You’re in the supermarket and you want to know if the soy milk you’re about to buy contains GMOs. You take out your smartphone and find your QR code scanning app. You scan the QR code, which takes a few tries to connect. You wait for the information to pop up on your screen, but you’re taken to the company’s website and have to navigate the home page to find out where the GMO details reside. Now imagine doing that for every product you’re thinking about buying. In contrast, it takes just a few seconds to pick up a package off the shelf, turn it around, and find information about GMOs on the label.
- There are privacy concerns. Scan a QR code from your smart phone and manufacturers could gather information about your product choices or location, using you as a market research subject without your knowledge or consent. In the survey, 82 percent of the respondents said that such data collection should be prohibited if QR codes do appear on foods to provide GMO information.
- Consumers just want labels. The vast majority of consumers—88 percent—said they would prefer would prefer on-package labeling for genetically engineered food to QR codes. “We want all food manufacturers to be required to give consumers information on GMOs in their food,” says Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumer Reports. “And we want consumers to be able to find it on the package, not to have to scan QR codes and wade through websites to get it.”