Will QR Codes for GM Food Reveal Information — or Conceal it?

With GM foods now required to carry labels, companies are considering using QR codes, despite studies showing most Americans don’t scan them.

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Last week, President Obama signed a law that will require the food industry to label products containing genetically modified ingredients. As an alternative to written labels, manufacturers have the option of displaying this information via QR codes, those funny-looking square barcodes designed to provide further details about a given product, from ingredients to history to prices.

A new GMO labeling law allows manufacturers to deliver information via QR codes that must be scanned.

Visual: Wikimedia Commons

But there are a few catches.

First, QR codes require a smartphone — which only 64 percent of American adults own — or require the use of in-store scanners to reveal information about a product. Many critics of the GM labeling bill say that, because they add an extra layer of effort, QR codes may actually allow companies to shield from buyers the fact that a product is genetically modified. As a recent story in Vox put it, if companies find the information “too inflammatory, they can instead offer a digital QR code.”

Second, QR codes aren’t exactly popular. Though some consumers are vigilant about what goes into their food, research has found that most shoppers don’t care to read beyond the ingredient list. Studies find only about a quarter of shoppers self-report reading nutrition information on labels. And few dig into the details featured inside QR codes.

A new survey from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center of 1,011 Americans, for example, found that 59 percent of respondents were “not likely” to use their mobile phones or in-store scanners to find out whether a product contained genetically modified ingredients. 38 percent claimed “not likely at all.” Scanning a QR code, it seems, is a matter of preference, and most shoppers prefer not to.

“QR codes haven’t connected to things that people valued,” said William Hallman, Chair of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University and a visiting scholar at the policy center, who worked on the survey. Discounts and coupons like ‘Scan this QR code for a dollar off,’ Hallman explains, aren’t valuable enough to engage the majority of shoppers.

This is a problem QR proponents have faced since the barcodes were introduced in Japan and Korea in the early 2000s. In fact, most consumers have yet to scan a QR code. According to a 2015 Nielsen survey of 30,000 people worldwide, only 11 percent of respondents said they had scanned QR codes to access more information, though two-thirds said would be willing to use them in the future.

The problem until now, as Hallman sees it, is that most consumers haven’t thought the information worth accessing. But certain groups — like those interested in GM foods and pesticides — his research has shown, are prone to more serious research and learning more about products and their provenance, whether they know about the new labeling law or not. Those groups, he’s found, are more likely to use QR codes, especially if there is dynamic information available to the consumers who scan.

If consumers can find continually-updated data on their food’s ingredients, the stops along its supply chain, and other biographical details, then Hallman says QR codes might attract more users beyond these special interest groups. Perishable products sourced from different parts of the world depending on the time of year, for example, would be a good choice for this kind of labeling.

“It comes down to what information is going to be at the end of the rainbow,” Hallman said. “That’s where the value will be.”

All of this suggests that even with genetically modified foods now required to carry explicit labeling, it will still be largely up to consumers to maintain a watchful eye on their food’s ingredients — and to be aware of the potential for those details to disappear into the QR ether.

This post has been updated to reflect that William Hallman is a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

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5 comments / Join the Discussion

    It’s a pity that Obama (and you) are pandering to the sort of anti-science fanatics who think GMO food is dangerous. Millions of third world children have been hurt by this false narrative. Do some research and you’ll change your mind.

    GMOs can cause more food allergies. Conventional/non GMO food has been vetted for thousands of years. GMOs are in effect brand new. And not only that they change constantly. Conventional foods are therefore safer. I want clear and concise food labels. I don’t want a coverup.

    If your argument is children’s health, then you are ignoring the children affected by nitrogen, pesticide and related ag pollution GMO adoption is causing. Most people don’t have a problem with the health impacts–but the environmental benefits are outright myths that have been disproven repeatedly. They aren’t solving any problems, and they are creating numerous new ones. You obviously have research to do, too. BTW, most of your “third world children benefits” stories are utter myths, too–they are talking about such things, but they aren’t close to actually dealing with them, and until someone pays them to and makes it profitable, they won’t.

    Neat story, but fails to note that companies have two other choices for how to label, and opponents are most against the QR code version, so it remains to be seen how man companies will go for what’s behind Door # 3.

    If consumers can’t be bothered to look up QR codes, doesn’t that imply that there is no driving demand for labeling GMOs? Sure, people will answer yes to labeling if given a loaded question in a poll, but most consumers don’t even think about GMOs. The driving force for labeling the presence of GMOs has been the fear that activists who object to GMOs want to instill in the public. They want a target that they can demonize.

    QR codes can provide information if people want it, but the “made with GMOs” label that activists want, because they claim people might object to the use of pesticides, people might be concerned about their safety (when no safety issues exist), or the influence certain corporations have on the food supply, are not proper functions for a mandated label.

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