A congressionally mandated study belatedly released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) questions the feasibility of electronic disclosures as a means of providing consumers with information on genetically engineered (GE) food ingredients, but leaves the door open for USDA to continue with the system, based on improving technology. The study confirms concerns held by many that “electronic and digital disclosures” (QR codes) will pose technological challenges for consumers, limiting access to food information.
The study was required by the 2016 Federal Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standards Act (the “GE Labeling Act”) to help inform the establishment of federal standards for labeling by July 2018. The labeling law allows USDA to consider several options: on-package text, a GE symbol on packages, or “electronic or digital disclosures,” which would require shoppers to use a smart phone to scan packages to access a website or call a 1-800 number for every single product to find out if it was produced with genetic engineering
The study is crucial in analyzing whether QR codes will make the information accessible or not, based on several factors. The study found that the proposed food labeling measures will not serve consumers who do not have access to technology. Specifically, the researchers found key technological challenges that prevented nearly all participants from obtaining the information through electronic or digital disclosure methods:
⦁ Technological challenges disproportionately impact low-income earners, rural residents, and Americans over the age of 65.
⦁ Consumers are unfamiliar with QR codes or do not know that digital links contain food information.
⦁ Many of the more than 100 apps on the market that scan QR codes are not intuitive to use and include pop-up ads, causing consumer confusion.
⦁ Consumers may not have equipment capable of scanning digital links on their own, and in most cases there is not a viable alternative provided by retailers.
⦁ Consumers without phones are unlikely to find in-store scanners available and landlines do not provide a practical way of getting the information.
⦁ Consumers may be unable to connect to broadband, or connect at a speed that is so slow that they cannot load information, particularly rural and low-income consumers.
⦁ In-store scanners may be cost prohibitive for small and rural retailers and provide limited benefit due to limited consumer understanding and rapidly changing technology.
⦁ The study also concluded that “offline alternatives are necessary for consumers who lack access to a scanning device or broadband.
According to the study, 53 percent of adults say they care about the issue of GE food, with a third of that group caring a great deal. Half of all shoppers would likely be sensitive to labeling changes, as evidenced by increased consumer desire for food information which is pervasive across region, age, income, and gender.
It is unclear how USDA plans to comply with the federal law’s other mandates for the study, including that the public be given the right to comment on it. The labeling option that makes sense is on-package labeling which is quick, simple and effective, but the study keeps the door open for electronic options by concluding, “Education for consumers and retailers around electronic and digital disclosure links and bioengineered foods will improve access and understanding.” The study also concludes, “Developing or endorsing user-friendly scanner apps will ease the consumer experience.”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and your Congressional delegation need to hear from you in view of this study showing the challenges of the electronic option. Please send the letters below to Secretary Perdue, your Representative, and your Senators.