Critics fear American companies will use QR codes to conceal GMO data, citing studies showing that most consumers don't use them.

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

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.