The food labeling debate took a new turn this week. Food manufacturers announced the creation of a "SmartLabel" that will allow consumers to scan a product using a smartphone to get information about GMOs and much more.
By the end of 2017, the Smart Label will be included on more than 30,000 products from big food companies like Coca Cola, Campbell Soup, Hersheys and others, according to Fortune. The barcode (also known as a QR label) will include "ingredients, allergens, animal welfare, environmental policies, and, perhaps the most controversial attribute, whether the food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs)."
The initiative was announced by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an industry group that has opposed mandatory labeling, saying it could be confusing and costly. The SmartLabel is seen as a way for retailers to voluntarily address that need.
“People want more information and are asking more questions about products they buy, use and consume, and SmartLabel puts detailed information right at their fingertips,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of GMA, in a news release.
But it is really a win for a consumer's right to know?
Have those who want to know what's in our food finally won? Personally, I don't think so.
First of all, it's voluntary. No food manufacturer has to adopt the SmartLabel or put it on a food package. Food manufacturers can leave out information if they choose to.
Also, the information won't be accessible to everyone. About one-third of Americans don't have a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. Although the GMA says the information will also be available on the Internet and at the service desks of some grocery stores, it still won't be accessible to everyone. Take my mother as an example: She doesn't have a smartphone. She doesn't have a computer. She does the majority of her grocery shopping at an old-fashioned little corner store that doesn't have a service desk.
This SmartLabel is not what consumers want. A recent national poll by The Mellman Group found that nine in 10 people would prefer GMO labeling to be printed on the package, not found only by using a smartphone app or bar code. Additionally, only 16 percent of the people surveyed said they'd ever scanned a QR code before. It's not a technology people use, even though it's been around for a long time.
This SmartLabel seems like a way for food manufacturers to avoid the mandatory labeling the majority of Americans are demanding. They can say they're putting the information out there, even if it's not being shared in a consumer-friendly way.
The SmartLabel Fact Sheet says it meets the needs of consumers who want an "increasing amount of information about their food, beverage, household and personal care products."
But it does not meet the needs of consumers who want to avoid GMOs or know what allergens are in the foods they're buying. That information needs to be on the package where every single consumer picking up that package has immediate access to the information. The Center for Food Safety, pointing to a new national poll, says about 89 percent of participants says they want mandatory GMO labeling and for that info to be on the label in an easy-to-read format.
Imagine someone with a toddler in the cart who has food allergies trying to scan a SmartLabel while the toddler is grabbing the phone or reaching for food off the shelf. Imagine someone with toddler in the cart who has food allergies who doesn't have a smartphone. That SmartLabel doesn't meet those consumers' needs. And as for GMOs, if you want to avoid eating them, you shouldn't have to buy the food, take it home, and then look the information up on a computer to learn that you don't want to eat the product.
I have no problem with a barcode that would give additional information on issues like animal welfare or environmental policies. I'd love a clean-cut way to get to that information for many food companies. However, that is never information I need when I'm looking at a package in the grocery store trying to decide if that's something I want my family to eat.
I don't have any inside information, but if I were asked to guess, I'd say that the introduction of these SmartLabels is an indication that food manufacturers are concerned mandatory GMO labeling on packaging will eventually be the law. I see it as a cue for those of who want mandatory GMO labeling to keep up the fight because perhaps we're closer to winning that we know.