5 Reasons Why QR Codes Aren’t the Answer For GMO Labeling


Director, Food Policy Initiatives​

By Jean Halloran on Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.”

16 responses to “5 Reasons Why QR Codes Aren’t the Answer For GMO Labeling”

  1. Mary Grayeske says:

    Print the information on large enough lettering to be read right on the package. As above “I do not want my food tainted by the people who developed agent orange.”

  2. Chris Richards says:

    OK, so let me get this straight . . . the use or QR codes is supposedly ‘discriminatory’ towards people who can’t afford a smartphone – but everyone’s still fine with those people paying 30% more at the checkout to buy organic food.

    Priorities. Riiiiiight.

  3. Michele Grinoch says:

    I would lie to see documentation on the scientific studies that were done showing that GMO food is as nutritious as the original. In all my reading, I have not seen this anywhere.
    Recently, I attended a lecture given by an executive from a leading medical testing company. Although not developed for this purpose, one of their tests is now being used to identify GMO food items. It seems that the RNA is different. Today, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but we don’t know what science will uncover in the future. I, like every other person, have the right to know what is in my food.

    • Stanford did a survey of the literature on the nutritional value of organic and conventionally-grown food which failed to find significant differences. Here’s what their press release says:

      “Although there is a common perception — perhaps based on price alone — that organic foods are better for you than non-organic ones, it remains an open question as to the health benefits. In fact, the Stanford study stemmed from Bravata’s patients asking her again and again about the benefits of organic products. She didn’t know how to advise them.

      So Bravata, who is also chief medical officer at the health-care transparency company Castlight Health, did a literature search, uncovering what she called a “confusing body of studies, including some that were not very rigorous, appearing in trade publications.” There wasn’t a comprehensive synthesis of the evidence that included both benefits and harms, she said.

      “This was a ripe area in which to do a systematic review,” said first author Smith-Spangler, who jumped on board to conduct the meta-analysis with Bravata and other Stanford colleagues.

      For their study, the researchers sifted through thousands of papers and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. Those included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.

      After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance). There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

      The researchers were also unable to identify specific fruits and vegetables for which organic appeared the consistently healthier choice, despite running what Bravata called “tons of analyses.”

      “Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Smith-Spangler, who is also an instructor of medicine at the School of Medicine. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.””


      Consumers Union promotes organic foods in the absence of any scientific reason.

    • On the safety of genetically engineered food vs. conventional food (which includes mutation breeding, hybrids, far crosses, diploidy and triploidy) it was hard to miss the recent report from the National Academies of Sciences deeming GMOs safe. Here’s what Vox said about it:

      “This week, the National Academies of Sciences released the most thorough review yet of genetically modified crops — a hulking 420-page report. It’s an independent look at all the research on GMOs to date, vetted for conflicts of interest. I’ll start with a quick, crude summary and then dive into the nuances of what the expert committee found.

      “The crude summary goes like so: Despite all the controversy, the GM crops available to date — mostly a few crops engineered to be resistant to herbicides or to pests — are considered just as safe to eat as conventional crops. These crops have proved an economic boon to many farmers, although they haven’t led to a huge surge in yields. Current GM crops seem mostly fine for the environment, with insect-resistant varieties allowing farmers to use fewer chemical pesticides. That said, there’s a danger that over-spraying of herbicide-resistant crops has given rise to herbicide-resistant weeds.

      “If you just want a bite-size assessment of present-day GM crops, that will likely do. But if you plunge deeper into the report, you’ll find a whole bunch of asterisks and caveats to all the sentences above.”


  4. Shame on CU for selling out to Big Organic and Big Fear. I will never give you a penny until you halt this misguided and dishonest campaign.

    You should at least mention the fact that the QR code is one of three methods called for by the bill, the other two being a URL and a phone number.

  5. Matt Rogers, PhD says:

    CU had really jumped the shark. The ‘right to know’ crap is every bit as disingenuous as the ‘we just want to protect women’s health’ arguments from the right wingers in Texas with their anti-abortion laws. And you are using the same ‘merchants of doubt’ science denialism tactics as the right wing climate change deniers. For shame.


    As a sort of counter groundswell started to build against the anti-science nature of the GMO opponents, an article in Slate Magazine stated that the anti-GMO political left are using the same debate methods and tactics that have been adopted by the climate change denialists–they ignore the scientific consensus, cherry-pick data that supports their pre-determined positions, and use popular polls, instead of scientific evidence, to support their beliefs.

    The same individuals and groups who are outraged by whatever the climate deniers do politically, seem to ignore those same anti-science principles when it applies to their hatred of GMO products. It’s like Mother Jones, the left wing magazine who will jump on any global warming denialist, has switched places with the Wall Street Journal when it comes to GMO foods.

  6. Jeffrey Hesse says:

    Like Steve Maschue, I am very disappointed with CR’s anti-GMO crusade, which seems wholly inconsistent with it’s otherwise science-based approach to consumer protection. I have followed the GMO issue over the years, reading both pros and cons. While it easy to react emotionally to some of the arguments leveled against GMOs, I have yet to hear or see any compelling science-based evidence. Indeed, the most vocal opponents seem to be those who also rail against vaccinations, fluoridation and the United Nations as part of some “world government” conspiracy or worse. That’s not the sort of company I ever expected CR would keep. With my tongue somewhat in cheek, I am left to wonder what CR’s position would have been when Henry Ford started selling his “dangerous contraptions” or Dr. Jonas Salk began to push his “medical cure” (automobiles and the polio vaccine if you are not up on your history). As for food retailers and food service companies that proudly boast “No GMOs Sold Here!”, I strongly suspect their zeal has more to do with marketing than food safety. While I support the rigorous enforcement of rational food safety regulations, the demonization of GMOs only threatens to rob us of a powerful tool for the efficient and safe production of food and other agricultural products. The earth is not flat and man was, in fact, meant to fly. Allow science to evolve and stop pandering to (or encouraging) irrational fears.

  7. I have been a subscriber to CR since the late 1960s and have believed in the organization’s disciplined, objective approach to evaluating products. However, I believe CR has strayed from the course in promoting the anti-GMO hysteria. Just like most scientists agree with global warming, most scientists agree that GMO food is safe, and in fact necessary to be able to feed and nourish the world. By insisting on GMO labeling, CR is continuing the hysteria. I am very disappointed with Consumer Reports and think they are doing it just for publicity.

  8. fran manning says:

    Just stand in the checkout line on a busy Saturday and insist on swiping evety code

  9. Whitney says:


  10. Lloyd Macklem says:

    Have you ever gone to a web site and found it is not available any more ? Beside not even interested in a package that has the goofy bar code on it , the web page could be changed at any time. Before you leave the store the info you scanned could be totally different. Written info you take home is a hard copy.

  11. BillyB says:

    Simple, If they want QR codes for GMO labeling then they should require every place using QR codes to have scanners like the barcode scanners in some stores now. Let the supporters like the Grocery Manufacturers Association ask their members if they want to spend the money for QR coding GMO foods instead of just putting it in english on the package.
    To me its just a deceptive way to sell more by not telling the truth about whats in the foods.

  12. Katherine OHara says:

    Enough already !! Just mark the box in language that is easy to understand. I don’t want my food tainted by the people who developed agent orange.

  13. Therese Jensen says:

    I am handicapped and aside from being unable to use my phone to read the QR labels I order my groceries online . That information is not available to me online . This is discrimination .

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