The new federal bill on the labelling of genetically-modified ingredients in the US includes a critical compromise which will allow the necessary product information to be communicated through a QR code. Ben Cooper asks whether this enshrines the consumer’s right to know if GM ingredients are present or the right to find out.

Heralded as the beginning of “a new era for transparency in ingredient information for consumers” by the Grocery Manufacturers Association but derided by campaigners as an industry-inspired sell-out, the passing of a bill to establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods is nevertheless a significant moment for the US agri-food sector.

A country with one of the most permissive approaches to the use of genetic modification, and consequently very high prevalence of foods containing GM ingredients on the market, has now technically enshrined in law the consumer’s right to know whether the foods they are buying contain genetically modified ingredients. The devil, however, is in the detail.

The bill has been characterised as an exercise in business-friendly compromise and the concessions it has yielded, along with its enthusiastic backing from the food industry, support that description.

Campaigners contend using the term “bioengineering” is ambiguous and too narrow, and are critical that only modification which “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature” will trigger the use of the new disclosure standard.

However, arguably the greatest bone of contention is the bill allows for three different forms of on-pack communication: a statement in words, a symbol to be developed by the US Department of Agriculture or a QR code through which consumers can obtain the necessary information digitally.

A new survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania and the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University has cast doubt on whether QR codes are a sufficient form of communication for the new standard. While 29% of respondents reported they had used smartphones or a store scanner to scan UPC or QR codes to find a price or to check out in the past 12 months, only 15% said they had used codes to find ingredient or nutrition information. Furthermore, 38% said they were “not likely at all” to use their mobile phones or in-store scanners to learn whether a product contained GM ingredients, while 21% said “not too likely”. Only 15% said they would “very likely” do so, while 25% said it was “somewhat likely”.

Megan Westgate, executive director of the GM-free certification organisation, the Non-GMO Project, says the bill is “disappointing in terms of clear information on packaging”.

However, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents US food manufacturers, suggests QR codes are “a good solution” for consumers. The organisation launched its own SmartLabel digital labelling initiative last December with 30 of its members signed up and a projection to have the labels on 30,000 grocery products by the end of 2017. While SmartLabel gives consumers access to a wide range of product information, the GMA specifically referenced its future role in implementing a national standard for GM labelling

“SmartLabel and digital disclosure are a good solution for consumers,” a GMA spokesperson tells just-food. “Consumers have a greater thirst for information than ever before. SmartLabel provides more information than could ever fit on a label.”

Regarding the Rutgers/Penn findings, the spokesperson says the key is the desire to know more about GMO rather than the technology. “When consumers find that a technology – QR code, app, or something else – gets them to information they want and find of value, they will use it. If a survey respondent doesn’t care about GMO, then any vehicle to provide that info won’t be valued and the answer will be ‘won’t use it’. The driver of the interest is the content, not the technology.” 

The GMA’s research to test the application of SmartLabel found 48% of consumers said they were likely to use it for finding ingredient information while 27% said they were ‘extremely likely’.  

The inclusion of QR codes will remain a focus of debate while the USDA hones the legislation over the coming two years, not least as it represents a key point of difference from the GM labelling act recently passed in the state of Vermont, which requires a written label. However, the national legislation now overrides any state measures. 

The Vermont law had already prompted a number of major food companies to announce plans to disclose the presence of GMO ingredients on-pack, notably Kellogg , ConAgra Foods, Mars Inc and General Mills . All four companies had stated they would introduce labelling nationwide to comply with the Vermont legislation. However, all have said they are now reviewing their policy.

ConAgra said it “welcomes a national, uniform approach to disclosure on the use of GMOs in food”. It said it had begun adding statements to product labels nationwide to meet the Vermont law but is now assessing its long-term approach taking into account regulatory requirements, consumer preferences and customer needs. “We intend to comply fully with the final labelling regulations,” the company said. 

General Mills also welcomed the bill, adding: “Regarding our plans on future labelling, we will need to review the USDA’s guidance once finalised, talk with our consumers on their preferences, and develop our long-term plan.”

Meanwhile, Kellogg said it welcomed the creation of “a nationwide mandatory labelling standard”, and it is “evaluating how we move forward with the best interests of our consumers in mind”. 

Mars was the only company to allude directly to QR codes when asked by just-food what its next steps would be. 
“We elected to adopt a labelling approach that would comply with the Vermont law as necessary, but also give us flexibility to address consumer information needs in other states and markets,” a Mars spokesperson told just-food.

“Now that Congress has acted on this at the federal level, we are going to watch the USDA process to see if a better alternative approach – maybe QR codes – is developed. This will take a while, though. So, for the moment, we are staying the course with our labelling plan.”

The Mars spokesperson also stressed it firmly believes in the “safety of genetically engineered ingredients based on scientific evidence, but we also recognise that consumers want choice”.

Interestingly, the questions over the safety or environmental impacts of genetically modified products has become somewhat lost as the issue of exactly how their presence in food products should be communicated has dominated the agenda.

The debate has been marked by differences between the two lead government agencies on food in the US, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Reservations raised in a submission to the Senate Agriculture Committee by the FDA regarding definitions used in the bill have given grist to campaigners’ mill.

On the other hand, where the two agencies stand shoulder to shoulder is in saying that GM ingredients represent no risk to consumers.

Indeed, the fact the FDA has not been directly involved in creating this legislation is itself telling. The FDA’s view is that “the use GE techniques in the production of food is not a material fact that must be disclosed on the labelling of food products”. In its submission to the Senate Agriculture Committee, the FDA said it did not wish to be the responsible agency for any regulatory programme as “any issuance by FDA of regulations governing labelling of foods as bioengineered could be understood by the public as reflecting on the safety of such foods”.  

Professor William Hallman of Rutgers University, lead researcher in the Rutgers/Penn study, believes that while the bill states the Secretary for Agriculture will “determine the amounts of bioengineered substance that may be present in food as appropriate, in order for the food to be labelled as bioengineered food”, this cannot be a scientifically determined judgment. 

“The key here is that determining the appropriate amounts of a bioengineered substance that may be present in food to trigger a label is a political question, not a scientific question,” Prof. Hallman tells just-food. “The relevant federal agencies maintain that no adverse health effects have been shown to be associated with the foods produced using any amount of the current ‘bioengineered’ ingredients. Therefore, there is no scientific basis for choosing what amount is ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ to include in a food product.”

In this context, the inherent equivocation represented by the QR codes compromise seems oddly consistent. President Obama’s 2007 pledge to “let folks know if their food has been genetically modified because Americans should know what they are buying” will be broadly met by the legislation. However, the government view appears to be that while people are entitled to the information, mandating an explicit notification of the presence of ingredients which represent no risk to them is not appropriate.