Food Makers Try Higher-Tech Labels Amid Calls for Transparency

Initiative allows shoppers to scan labels with smartphones to get more information

The voluntary system uses QR codes to allow shoppers to scan products with their smartphones.
The voluntary system uses QR codes to allow shoppers to scan products with their smartphones. PHOTO: LUKE SHARRETT/BLOOMBERG NEWS

A group of big food makers and other consumer-goods companies plans to use smartphone scanning technology to allow shoppers to quickly get detailed information on their products, as more consumers clamor to learn more about ingredients.

The SmartLabel initiative, announced Wednesday by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group, so far includes more than 30 companies, includingGeneral Mills Inc., Hershey Co., and PepsiCo Inc. The association said companies are expected to use the technology on 30,000 products by the end of 2017.

Perhaps the most-contested issue the SmartLabel is intended to address is the use of ingredients made from genetically modified organisms—crops whose DNA is engineered to produce traits such as pest resistance. The U.S. government allows production of multiple GMO crops and many science groups deem them safe, but some consumers and advocacy groups say they potentially harm the environment and human health, and have urged that products containing them be labeled.

Industry officials say mandatory labeling would be confusing and costly, and that companies should be allowed to do so voluntarily. The SmartLabel—which allows but doesn’t require companies to reveal GMO ingredients—is a step toward doing that. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimated that by the end of 2017, companies will disclose information on GMOs for some 20,000 products through the SmartLabel technology.

“People’s relationship with food has changed dramatically and consumers now want to know more about their food, such as where it came from and what went into making it,” said Hershey Chief Executive J.P. Bilbrey. Hershey recently began selling chocolate Kisses with the new codes.

Hershey recently began using the new codes on packages of chocolate Kisses.
Hershey recently began using the new codes on packages of chocolate Kisses. PHOTO: DANIEL ACKER/BLOOMBERG

Hershey, which announced its use of SmartLabel last month, said it provides the chance to explain what certain ingredients, like the common emulsifier soy lecithin, are and why they are necessary. Hershey also said earlier this year it is stripping out some ingredients, including GMOs, when practical.

The SmartLabel uses a Quick Response, or QR, code that shoppers can scan in stores using a smartphone app, which will take them to a company website with more nutrition facts, ingredient definitions and sustainability information. The Grocery Manufacturers Association said a survey it commissioned found that 75% of consumers would be likely to use SmartLabel.

The Center for Food Safety, an environmental-and-health nonprofit organization, said conveying information that way rather than on the package itself is insufficient, because some shoppers can’t afford smartphones with data packages to read the codes.

“QR code labeling discriminates against the poor, minorities, rural populations and the elderly,” said Andrew Kimbrell, the group’s executive director. “They are a completely unacceptable substitute for clear, concisely worded on package labeling.”

Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, a group that encourages voluntary GMO labeling, also said SmartLabel isn’t enough and that GMO labeling should be “easily found on the packaging.”

Others applauded the move. “I’d say this is a positive step,” said Gregory Jaffe,biotechnology project director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group focused on food safety and nutrition. “Any time the consumer is getting more information about their food and what goes into it is a good thing.”

Labeling which foods do or don’t contain GMOs is tricky. Government regulators haven’t set standards for what counts as non-GMO food, the way they have for organic or gluten-free foods. Instead, companies must rely on independent certifiers like the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said it urges Congress to pass legislation setting a uniform national standard for GMO labeling to avoid having various state mandates. The association estimates that the number of products disclosing the presence of GMOs—or lack thereof—could triple once a uniform national standard is set.

Big food makers including General Mills and Campbell Soup Co. long have argued that adding a label for GMOs would seem like a warning label and would be misleading to consumers by implying such foods are unsafe when U.S. regulators say they aren’t.

The SmartLabel technology, while a compromise, shows the pressure on such companies to respond.

“People want more information and are asking more questions about products they buy,” said Pamela Bailey, CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

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