Does the code above look familiar? Quick Response (QR) codes have steadily become a popular form of information since their release in 1994. These 2-dimensional codes provide information once scanned by a smartphone or scanning device. QR codes have been used in everything from ads, cereal boxes, business cards, to even tattoos. QR codes are everywhere but how would you feel about having to scan a code for GMO information at the grocery store?
For the most part, food labels have traditionally been physically placed on products being sold. Thanks to the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, the USDA is currently working on creating transparency between consumers and GMO labels by July 2018.
In doing so, the USDA conducted a study released earlier this month to address the issue of accessing bioengineered information through digital links such as QR codes. Many brands are interested in reducing writing space on their products and digital links are deemed a solution. The study conducted by Deloitte analyzed 150 observations and 1,000 crowdsourced participants across the U.S. It found that 53 percent of adults care about the bioengineered food issue. In the study, over 62 percent of participants believed they could access GMO information through a digital link. All 40 conversations observed showed that consumers did not associate digital links to additional food information.
Various issues come up when trying to introduce the American public with the use of digital links to find bioengineered information. First of all, many people don’t own smartphones or have access to the tools necessary for scanning. As of 2017, 23 percent of the population does not own a smartphone and per the study, “Technological challenges disproportionately impact low-income earners, rural residents, and Americans over the age of 65.” GMO information should be made accessible to everyone.
If certain groups of people do not have accessibility to GMO information because of their economic status, then they would be at a huge disadvantage by being denied that information. Transparency should be the government’s top priority and if there are still those who cannot access digital links then that is something the government should not pursue unless with a clear plan beforehand.
When accessing a digital link such as a QR code, you need the right mobile app to scan, WiFi signal, phone memory space, and your phone needs to have enough battery charge. These different components can make it challenging for someone to find the information they want at the grocery store. There are several scanning mobile apps available for Android and iOS users. But as the study noted, the variety of scanning apps could cause confusion as there are no one-serves-all directions. This signifies that there would need to be a universal mobile app encouraged by the USDA.
If a consumer found it challenging to scan on their device or didn’t have the right tools, retailers are not prepared to help. According to the study, out of 42 retailers visited, not even one had available scanning devices for consumers to use. Additionally, the study found that 39 percent of rural Americans do not have advanced broadband service. Digital links to access GMO information puts this group at a disadvantage. As of now, not all retailers have free accessible WiFi so it would be cost prohibitive for smaller retailers to install.
Another drawback is that most consumers do not equate digital links with GMO information. Through observations in the study, some participants indicated that they did not associate digital links with additional food information. This was due to digital links being associated with things such as social media sites, brand marketing and coupons. The public would need to be educated on the use of digital links for GMO information.
Despite these drawbacks, researchers believe that a digital link could be used to access GMO information if, “Effective education campaigns can help inform consumers on how to access and understand information available through such methods.” The government would have to make sure consumers understand the connection between digital links and bioengineered information as well as create a mobile app that would lessen confusion among consumers.
Until a clear educational campaign is made and disadvantaged groups can be provided with scanning devices, digital links for GMOs should not be dabbled with. It is understandable to want to be innovative with technology but it’s more important for the government to ask itself whether it should versus could do this. If the government asks consumers to go through so much effort to access information then it’s only fair that the government put in as much effort to make accessibility possible.
To be completely transparent and equal to all consumers, only physically written information on products for GMOs should be used in the time being.
September 29, 2017