Digital GMO disclosure faces significant but manageable challenges, USDA study

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Digital GMO disclosure faces significant but manageable challenges
Food and beverage manufacturers must work with the government and other stakeholders to overcome significant, but not insurmountable, challenges if they want to use QR codes or other digital technology to convey when products include genetically modified ingredients, according to research released earlier this month by the US Department of Agriculture. 

“The use of electronic and digital links presents novel opportunities and challenges for consumers seeking to access information on their food purchases,”​ such as whether the products are made with GMOs, according to the study conducted by Deloitte for USDA​ to help the agency establish federal labeling standards by July 2018 as mandated by the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law.

The study analyzed data from more than 150 observations and in-depth discussions and nearly 1,000 crowdsourced participants across the country to identify potential challenges associated with accessing bioengineering disclosure through an electronic or digital link. The controversial option appeals to some manufacturers that use GMO ingredients but do not want to give up valuable on-pack space. Opponents argue that digital disclosure obfuscates when GMOs are used because most consumers don’t know how or have time to check online for additional information when they are shopping.

The study acknowledges “there are some notable challenges”​ in using digital disclosure, but it concludes “most consumers would be able to access this information given the proper education and tools to do so.”

The potentially most significant challenge to digital disclosure identified by the study is that digital links are “not inherently associated with additional food information,”​ but rather all the consumers interviewed for the study said they assumed the links are for marketing and industry use.

In addition, the study found 12% of consumers faced challenges accessing equipment to scan digital links, such as smart phones or in store scanners – which notably none of the retailers investigated offered.

Of those consumers who did have smartphones, 85% “struggled with complicated mobile software applications, regardless of their comfort using technology,”​ according the study, which explained that this is due to variability between apps and the advertisements that they use.

Even if consumers have the equipment and the knowledge to use it, 20% of retail stores currently do not have in-store WiFi, which might be necessary for successful access to digital information, the study notes.

CFS says on-pack labels only answer

For the Center for Food Safety, which recently sued the government to release the study, the findings confirm what CFS says it “has long warned,”​ which is that “allowing companies to hide genetically engineered ingredients behind a website or QR code is discriminatory or unworkable.”

For additional support, it points to the study conclusion that “offline alternatives are necessary for consumers who lack access to a scanning device or broadband.”​ It also highlights the finding that in-store scanners could be cost prohibitive for small and rural retailers and provide limited benefit given the rapid change of technology.

As such, it argues in comments, “Americans deserve nothing less than clear on-package labeling, the way food has always been labeled.”

Overcoming challenges with education

But the researchers, as well as industry trade groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute disagree that this is the foregone conclusion for the study’s findings.

Rather, the researchers note, “effective education campaigns can help inform consumers on how to access and understand information available through such methods.”

Both FMI and GMA say they recognize the need for consumer education and are planning to provide it as soon as the final rule is issued and implementation begins.

“GMA strongly supports consumers having tools and information to make informed decisions about the products they buy and use. A consumer education campaign will be a vital part of the implementation and rollout of the bioengineering disclosure regulations,”​ the trade group said in a statement.

It also notes that, according to the law, if a QR code is used to disclose GE it must be accompanied by the text on the label that instructs consumers to “Scan here for more food information,”​ which GMA says will address the concern that consumers assume QR codes are for additional marketing.

Another work-around identified in the study would be offering additional information offline through a telephone number listed on the package that would connect consumers with someone who could explain the ingredients and the significance of the genetically modified ingredients.

Ultimately, however the information is communicated to consumers, manufacturers and retailers have an obligation to ensure consumers understand the methods and the message, according to the study – a task that the researchers say they are confident can be achieved if USDA and other stakeholders “work together to make the bioengineering disclosure properly accessible.”

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