Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jennifer Graves lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona. The article has since been updated to reflect this fact.
As a mother of three young children, Jennifer Graves, 32, takes grocery shopping seriously. She tries not to buy food with artificial sweeteners and "diet" labels. An easier grocery shopping experience could be on the horizon for Graves, however, as a new initiative launched earlier this month aims to provide consumers with a massive amount of product information simply with the swipe of a smartphone.
"I spend a lot of time reading the ingredients that are in the foods I am buying. If there is an app that can save me some time, I would gladly use it," Graves, an online instructor living in Gilbert, Arizona, said. "I feel as though there are so many chemicals that are hidden in foods that it is important that we know as much as we can ... it is important to know what we are putting into our bodies."
SmartLabel, the transparency initiative launched by the Grocery Manufacturers Association earlier this month, will soon allow consumers like Graves to find detailed product information on thousands of products, ranging from a box of cereal to laundry detergent, simply by scanning a pixilated square box called a QR, or quick response, code with their smartphone or by doing an online search. Once the code is scanned, shoppers will reach a specific landing page for that product, which will contain detailed information on ingredients and other product attributes. Ingredients, allergens, animal welfare and environmental policies can be included on SmartLabel, as well as information about whether the product contains GMOs.
Over 30 major food companies — including Pepsi, ConAgra, Campbell Soup, Nestle and Coca-Cola — have signed on to participate in SmartLabel, and some companies will start offering products containing SmartLabel as soon as this month and early next year. Roughly 30,000 products featuring SmartLabel are expected to hit store shelves by the end of 2017.
Although advocates hailed the search tool as a way to boost consumer confidence by providing better transparency, critics argued that it is simply a marketing gimmick that does not provide consumers with sufficient labeling, such as for products with GMOs, an issue that consumers are increasingly watching as they become more educated about where their food comes from. While many science groups have deemed GMOs — an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering — as safe, advocacy groups have claimed they could potentially harm human health and the environment.
Any day now, the Senate could vote on a bill — which passed the House in July — that would block states from requiring mandatory labeling on GMO foods. While several states have already passed laws requiring clear labeling on food packaging, if passed, the bill would stop those state laws. Biotech and food companies have been lobbying the Senate to pass the bill, and QR codes, like SmartLabel, have been touted as a sort of compromise to the hotly divisive issue of mandatory GMO food labeling.
Critics, however, do not think QR codes, like SmartLabel, provide sufficient labeling, and a recent national poll from the Mellman Group revealed that 88 percent of people would prefer a printed GMO label on the packaging of food, as opposed to using a smartphone app to scan a bar code.
“This [SmartLabel] is not a proposal born of good intention; it was created as a broader strategy to block mandatory GMO labeling,” said Scott Faber, executive vice president for he Environmental Working Group, one of the organizations behind the Just Label It campaign, which advocates for labeling of GMO foods. “Nine out of 10 consumers want mandatory GMO disclosures on the package, and SmartLabel was conceived as a poor substitute.”
The first version of SmartLabel, known as Gen 1.0, will include over 350 product attributes, with each one being classified as either “required ” or “voluntary.” Required attributes are defined by U.S. regulations and are required to be available to consumers by law, such as nutrition facts. Voluntary attributes, such as information about GMOs or fair trade practices, will be disclosed at the company’s discretion.
"People want more transparency, and they [companies] are slowly waking up to that, but they want to do it on their own terms," said Patty Lovera, the food director at Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that has been advocating for mandatory GMO labeling. "SmartLabel is a public relations response, as well as an attempt to head off regulations. They are saying, 'we are going to do this on our own terms,' even if those terms might not be good enough to give consumers what they need."
— Label Insight (@Labelinsight) December 11, 2015
For Hershey's Kisses Milk Chocolates, for example, the SmartLabel GMO disclosure reads, "This product may include ingredients sourced from genetically engineered (GE) crops, commonly known as GMO. In some products, we're sourcing ingredients from non-GMO crops (for example, cane sugar). We can't guarantee that all ingredients are from non-GMO crops."
“The disclosure itself doesn’t tell you anything, it’s like opening a Russian doll … you keep opening the dolls to get to the prize, yet the disclosure itself says, ‘maybe it has GMOs, maybe it’s doesn’t,’” Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, said.
Faber, who called SmartLabel "hastily conceived," also pointed out a large percentage of consumers do not have smartphones — a recent Pew Research Center study found roughly one-third of Americans do not own smartphones — and those people are typically low-income, less educated or elderly. For those who do have smartphones, Faber also acknowledged that QR codes are not always easily recognizable or easy to scan.
"There are really significant shortcomings with a purely digital disclosure system," Faber said. "Consumers want a disclosure on the package, not one that requires the use of a smartphone, because that’s not how consumers shop ... simply putting a two dimensional code on the package is not a cue that a funny looking box is the doorway to more information."
— GroceryManufacturers (@GroceryMakers) December 2, 2015
Companies that do choose to leave out controversial information are just doing a disservice to themselves, according to Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit organization in Gladstone, Missouri that surveys U.S. consumers to measure and track attitudes on food system issues.
“Today, consumers are crowdsourcing their knowledge, and they’ll go to places like third-party websites and social media feeds, so companies that potentially leave out information that they think can be controversial and dangerous are doing so at their own risk,” said Arnot. “If they [the consumer] finds that information somewhere else, they could see it as a violation of trust.”
For the portion of the population that already takes the time to look up product information, SmartLabel could be a hit. Nicole Maxwell, 29, who is a stay-at-home mom in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said she does research on all the brands that she buys. As a mother of a 1-year-old with another baby on the way, she likes to research whether or not a certain brand is organic.
"I don't really need to go online every time I shop anymore because I've done the research in the past, but if there something new I don't know about I do look it up," said Maxwell. "If it's [SmartLabel] fast and convenient, I wouldn't mind scanning the food I buy."
Arnot, the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, said consumers care more about than just GMOs, and that SmartLabel provides a wealth of information on other issues like animal welfare and environmental practices.
“I do think SmartLabel is a positive thing. The GMO debate has become so polarized and politicized, people lose sight of the fact that is not the only issue consumers care about,” said Arnot. “Even if consumers don’t end up accessing the information they feel better that it’s available … It is only one tool in the transparency toolbox.”