If GMO ‘Labels’ Are Buried in QR Codes, Few Consumers Will See Them

A new survey found that just 15 percent of Americans have used their smartphones to scan grocery items in the last year.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Aug 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When was the last time you used your smartphone to scan a QR code in the grocery store?

If you answered “Never,” “Can’t remember,” or—not unreasonably—“What the heck is a QR code?” you’re by no means alone. A recent survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that just 15 percent of Americans said they had scanned an electronic code to find information about a product’s nutrition or ingredients in the past year.

If all this is starting to sound more than a little confusing, well, that’s kind of the point. In what amounts to an enormous thumbing of the nose to the American public by politicians and industry, consumers who want to know whether a food product contains genetically modified ingredients will now more than likely have to scan the product to find out—despite there being a law on the books requiring the mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients for the first time since the first genetically engineered crops hit the consumer market in the early 1990s.

This is in almost diametric opposition to what an overwhelming majority of Americans—time and again, in multiple polls—have said they want. Upwards of 90 percent of the American public believes products made with GMO ingredients should be labeled—labeled with clearly worded text printed directly on the package. That’s what Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law mandated.

Pretty straightforward, right?

But now Vermont’s commonsense, consumer-friendly law has been superseded, just a month after it went into effect, and replaced by the more lax federal law. While the food industry is sighing with relief, consumer advocates are fuming.

Yes, the United States finally has a federal law that requires food makers to label products made with GMO ingredients. But here’s the rub: That “label” can be a QR code, requiring shoppers to scan it to determine whether or not the product contains GMO ingredients.

How many shoppers are likely to do that? Just 40 percent, according to the Annenberg survey. Let’s face it: That may be wildly optimistic. Remember, a scant 15 percent of those surveyed scanned a product in the past year. Who really wants to be standing in the middle of the grocery aisle scanning one product after another just to find out if there’s anything in the cart that’s been made with GMO ingredients?

What makes the federal GMO labeling law that much more ridiculous is that it not only allows food makers to essentially hide GMO information from smartphone-toting consumers behind a confusing QR code but also allows those companies to ignore a huge swath of the non-smartphone-toting population. As the Environmental Working Group noted last year in its takedown of the not-so-smart “smart label” touted by food makers, “More than 40 percent of consumers—especially low income, less educated and elderly consumers—don’t have phones that can scan QR codes.”

Far from being the sort of no-nonsense mandatory GMO label consumer advocates have long fought for, the federal label is only “mandatory” if you think that printing the surgeon general’s warning on, say, six in 10 packs of cigarettes, or posting stop signs at only about half of busy intersections, constitutes “mandatory.”

So why would big food makers and their allies in Congress push for such a demonstrably asinine label? It becomes clear when you look at further results from the Annenberg survey. Some 90 percent of corn, soy, and other major crops in the U.S. are genetically modified—and the food industry estimates that 75 to 80 percent of food products contain GMO ingredients. But when asked how much genetically modified food they’d eaten in the last week, a third of Americans surveyed said they consumed “not much or none at all,” while another third said they didn’t know. Yet nearly half said they would be less likely to purchase a food if they found out it contained GMO ingredients—giving the food industry a multimillion-dollar profit incentive to keep that GMO info as obscure as possible.

As William K. Hallman, a visiting scholar at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, puts it, “Without mandatory labeling, consumers are unlikely to recognize that many of the foods they buy have genetically modified components.”