Don’t Be Fooled by the Food Industry’s Smart Labels

by Anna Lappé

American consumers are waking up to the fact that a lot remains hidden about what is in their food and how it is produced. As a result, they are increasingly demanding greater access to information about added sugar, potential allergens, irradiation, use of antibiotics and more. The food industry has fought all these demands. But perhaps no call for transparency has been more contentious than the demand for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food.

For the past several years, voters and legislators in over 30 states have promoted mandatory GE food labeling policies, with three states — Vermont, Connecticut and Maine — passing laws. Vermont’s law, the first of its kind, is set to go into effect in July 2016, having survived a court challenge by the food industry. In response to these calls for greater transparency in the food supply chain, the food industry is working to block Vermont’s law in the halls of Congress, most recently by attaching a rider to the must-pass federal spending bill that would bar states from labeling GE foods.

This staunch antagonism toward transparency has led many consumers to question the motivations of the nation’s largest food companies. In a battle the industry appears to be losing, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the largest food industry trade group, announced a plan to respond to consumer demand for transparency: Smart Labels. The concept, as the industry spins it, is a high-tech way to satisfy consumers. Using on-label quick response (QR) codes, similar to bar codes, consumers will be able to access important ingredient information with a scan of their smartphone.

While the Smart Label plan may seem like progress, it is really just the latest marketing ploy to defuse consumer demand for real transparency.

There are several inherent problems with the QR code plan. First and foremost, by relegating important information such as GE content to cyberspace, Smart Labels will keep key information off the package — and out of sight. This is of particular importance when you consider that fewer than two-thirds of consumers have smartphones, the technology Smart Labels depend on, with access disproportionately lacking in low-income, elderly and rural populations — exactly the populations most vulnerable to diseases linked to poor nutrition.

But it’s not just who can access this information; it’s also a question of what information consumers will be able to access. In the QR code plan, companies remain in control, deciding exactly what information to reveal and how it will be displayed. Early examples of the Smart Label websites bury content about GE on hard-to-find pages. While the policies consumers have been fighting for across the country would require GE labeling, the Smart Label plan asks only for voluntary disclosures. In addition, there are many unanswered questions about how companies will use the consumer information they could gather with these technologies, leading to serious concerns about consumer privacy. How the companies will track the information they could gather has not been disclosed. As with other apps, it may link to users’ profiles, gather their personal information and use data about what they are scanning for marketing purposes without customer knowledge or consent.

While presented as an olive branch in the wars for transparency, Smart Labels obscure the truth behind the food choices made by busy shoppers. Knowing what’s in your food shouldn’t require sleuthing around on your high-tech device; it should be clearly visible on food packages.

It’s not just consumer advocates who believe in the power of the label: A recent poll by the Mellman Group found that nearly 90 percent of those surveyed preferred on-package labels to bar-code-based ingredient information; only 16 percent of them had used a QR code to gather information in a grocery store. This likely isn’t news to food companies; it is exactly what they are banking on. While the companies behind Smart Labels are claiming a good faith effort to give consumers information, the reality is that few consumers will use this technology. The majority will remain in the dark about how their food is produced.

We’ll find out this week if the food industry is able to sneak its anti-labeling rider into the federal spending bill. If not now, the fight is sure to continue in the New Year. Numerous members of Congress, including Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, all Democrats, have already voiced opposition to the rider; more are expected to do the same. But even if the rider is defeated in the short term, it’s clear the industry will keep on fighting against true transparency.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has planned an elaborate rollout of its Smart Labels initiative. Consumers and consumer advocates shouldn’t get suckered. Smart Labels may be smart marketing, but it’s not the solution we need to achieve transparency about genetically engineered ingredients — or other key information we want to know about what we eat.

Originally published in Al Jazeera America