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Are Food QR Codes the Cure for Product Labeling , Or Just a Placebo?

Posted by Green Builder Staff

Feb 22, 2016 4:00:31 PM

They sound good on the surface, but critics say poorer buyers can't afford smartphones, and most people won't even know why the codes exist.qr_code_food_label_green_builder.jpg

The food industry is proposing a new program called SmartLabel, that promises to deliver what savvy buyers have long sought: full disclosure about the ingredients in their food. Food industry media source GMA asserts that:

"SmartLabel makes it easier than ever for shoppers to find information about products they use and consume. SmartLabel will be available on an array of food, beverage, personal care, household and pet care products with information on hundreds of attributes covering thousands of products, including nutritional information, ingredients, allergens, third-party certifications, social compliance programs, usage instructions, advisories and safe handling instructions and company/brand information, along with other pertinent information about the product."

GMA cites research by Benenson Strategy Group suggesting that 75 percent of buyers say they would use SmarLabel, and they predict that 80 percent of groceries will be labeled this way within 5 years.

But let's slow down for a minute.

What's Not to Like?

Not everyone is so thrilled with the transition to QR code information labels. Here's why:

Technology Gap and Privacy Concerns

For example, a poll by The Mellman group found that

  • Almost nine in 10 (88%) would prefer a printed GMO label on the food package rather than use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.
  • Just 17% say they have ever scanned a bar code to get information, and only 16% sat they have ever scanned a “QR” code.
  • If bar codes were used, more than 80 percent say food companies should not be allowed to use the app to gather information about shoppers.

“Americans have yet again expressed an overwhelming desire to know what’s in their food,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “Shoppers want to see clear labels on food packaging that tell them if products are made with genetically engineered ingredients without having to use confusing codes or smartphone apps. We hope lawmakers hear consumers’ call for meaningful, mandatory national GMO labeling.”

“Everyone needs information to make informed food choices, not just those who have smart phones,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “There is no acceptable substitute for mandatory on-package labeling of GMO food.” (text source HERE)

And, as the Environmental Working Group points out,

"Even if food companies put QR codes on the package, there would be no prompt – such as, “scan here for GMO” – on the box, so shoppers wouldn’t know that scanning the code would give them more information about their food. What’s more, GMO information would be hidden under “other” information. Most important, the disclosure wouldn’t definitively tell people what they want to know – whether the food has GMO ingredients. It gets worse. Scanners won’t work if the codes are too small or supermarkets are poorly lit. Codes on bags – for instance, bags of potato chips – are very difficult to scan because they are not on a flat surface."

EWG also notes that many people do not, and may never, own smartphones, which typically come with higher monthly plan fees than other phones.

Clearly, this is not a "black and white" issue. The food industry deserves credit for finally moving in the direction of product transparency. But they will need to address the legitimate concerns of all demographics of buyers, if they're to be seen as the white hats in this debate.


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