The High Tech Hijacking of GMO Food Labeling

11/18/2015 04:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2015
  • Andrew Kimbrell Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety

Americans may not agree on much in this election year but according to polls, more than 90 percent support genetically engineered (GE) food labeling. Despite the industrial food complex spending hundreds of millions on lobbying against labeling, three states have responded to the call from their voters and passed labeling laws. Vermont's laws will require that companies start labeling by July, 2016.

This deadline has the agribusiness community scrambling for a way out. And of course their first strategy is to use their financial clout to pressure Congress to preempt all state labeling laws, thereby rescinding Vermont's law and any other past and future laws on labeling. And they partially succeeded. This past summer the House passed the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act that did just that. But they have hit a snag. The Senate does not seem to want to go along with this trampling on the democratic decision making of states that have voted for labeling. So the industry is now floating an idea in the Senate that would still preempt state labeling and halt even federal labeling, but would give the appearance of calling for labeling of all GE foods. The latest ploy? QR codes.

Yes, you read that right. The biotech industry, along with its top enabler at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Tom Vilsack, is trying to sell the idea that the long derided and poorly utilized QR code is the answer to consumer concerns about GE foods. A QR code, if you are among the many not familiar with it, is similar to a bar code. To use it, a person must have a smartphone device, an internet connection, and a QR code reader downloaded onto his or her phone. The person then opens the app and aims the phone at the QR code as if taking a picture. Once complete, the user is taken to a website chosen by whoever created the QR code. Vilsack and now even Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton are promoting QR code information on GE foods as sufficient to rescind the mandatory on package clear and accessible labeling required by the state laws. In that it seems to be taken as a serious option by some in the Senate, let's take a closer look at the problems with this attempt by the industry for a high tech hijacking of on package labeling.

1) QR codes are inherently discriminatory

So let's start with the obvious. Only 64 percent of Americans own a smartphone. That means that more than a third of all Americans will not be able to use this ersatz form of labeling. Moreover, as one would expect, those left out are disproportionately the poor and those living in non-urban areas. According to Pew Research Center, only 50% of low income people in the U.S. own a smartphone and only 52% of people living in rural areas own a smartphone. And even those who own smartphones are not guaranteed consistent access to the internet, and far fewer than that have ever used a QR code- less than 20 percent. Smartphones and data plans are expensive, and nearly half those who have smartphones have had to shut off their service at some point due to financial hardship.

Knowing about the foods you purchase should be the right of everyone. It should not be turned into luxury available only to those who can afford particular technologies and have the funds and tech savvy to use them. Obviously, substituting clear and accessible on-package labeling with QR codes would be a form of discrimination against the poor, the rural, the elderly and many other groups. In the end, a substantial majority of Americans would be deprived of their right to know. No surprise that this option is being pushed by the industrial food complex that wants to keep us shopping in the dark. This discriminatory impact of QR codes should be enough to deep six the entire misguided idea, but there are other problems with it as well.

2) QR codes put an undue burden on the shopper

So even assuming you are among those with a smart phone and the appropriate app and the knowledge of how to use and funds to keep it in use, let's contrast the QR solution with clear and conspicuous on-package labeling. With conventional labeling you walk down the grocery aisle examining the products on the shelves, you pick up each one and quickly find the information you need on the package - simple, fast and effective. Now imagine that each time you pick up a product you have to pull out your phone, open up an app (if you can connect to the internet), wait for the camera to focus on the bar code, wait for a webpage to load, and then finally read to see if the information you need is there. That's a lot of effort to go through to get basic information that any company could easily simply have on the package. And they know it. They have calculated that excluding those that do not have or know how to use smartphones, plus those that cannot spend the considerable extra time for the burdensome QR process, will mean that only a very small percentage of shoppers will actually be informed about whether their food is genetically engineered. Once again, a great pseudo-solution for the biotech industry that gives the impression of labeling without the reality of the public actually being informed about what they are purchasing.

3) QR codes raise privacy concerns

Proposals to use QR code technology in lieu of on-package labeling also raise serious questions about the privacy of consumer data. When using QR codes what data would be exchanged and how might companies be able to use that data? For instance, would a company be able to determine which customers are viewing their products through QR codes? Could they use that data to target consumers through advertising? Would any personal data be exchanged? The government thus far has a poor track record protecting consumer data and curbing the massive marketing machines of the food industry. This system only opens consumers up to further exploitation and invasion of privacy.

4) Tech-based solutions set a dangerous precedent

Let's pull back from the specific GE labeling issue and ask a larger question. Are QR codes the way we want food labeling to be done in the future? Whether a product is GE or not is just one of many disclosures that could be moved to smartphones or other technologies and away from clear on-package labeling. So we can see that utilizing QR codes for GE food information could set a dangerous and misguided precedent. We do not want this discriminatory, burdensome and privacy invasive technology to become the norm. QR codes therefore are not part of the solution to GE food labeling, but rather part of the problem of corporations continuing to prevent Americans from getting the information they need to make informed choices about the food they buy and feed their families.