Food

Big Food Discriminates Against the Poor by Pushing QR Codes to Label GMOs

The food industry is pushing for QR codes instead of clear package labels, leaving consumers without smartphones in the dark.

Photo Credit: a katz/Shutterstock.com

It’s no surprise that according to yet another recent poll, Americans overwhelmingly believe they have the right to know if their food is genetically engineered, with roughly 90 percent regularly voicing support of mandatory GMO labeling. The new national survey conducted by the Mellman Group confirms these previous results.

The new poll also shows that labeling is supported by large majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, as well as people who hold both favorable and unfavorable views of GMOs.

In line with previous polls, this latest survey found that overall, 77 percent of respondents were strongly in favor of mandatory GMO labeling. But for the first time, the poll also asked how consumers wanted to get that information and the response was clear: Almost nine in 10 would prefer a printed GMO label on the food package rather than use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.

Despite this overwhelming support for GMO labeling, Congress has not heeded the call. This week, legislators are poised to overturn hard fought state labeling laws, like Vermont’s, and instead push high-tech gimmicks like “QR Codes” as a replacement for the clear labeling of GE foods that Americans want. To do this, they would attach a “rider” onto the must-pass federal spending bill. If this doesn’t happen next week, it would also be proposed in early 2016.

The food industry, which has aggressively fought against GE labeling, is pushing this proposal to substitute QR codes for clear labels on the package. But the notion is inherently problematic. To scan these codes, a person must have a smartphone device, an Internet connection or cellular data service, and a QR code reader or special app downloaded onto the phone.

As highlighted in a recent blog post, QR codes are discriminatory, as only 50 percent of low-income people own a smartphone, and only 52 percent of people living in rural areas own a smartphone. QR codes and similar “smart labels” — as the industry is trying to market them — put undue burden on the shopper, among other issues. Plus, just 17 percent of those polled say they have ever scanned a bar code to get information, and only 16 percent said they have ever scanned a QR code.

So let’s look at who’s left out when labeling relies on smartphones instead of package labels. A 2012 poll conducted after the California ballot initiative to label GE foods (Prop 37, which lost by less than 3 percent), shows huge support for GE food labeling among Latinos, Asians and African Americans.

In fact, more people in those populations voted in favor of Prop 37 than college-educated white women, the supposed “target audience” for QR codes and GE food labeling in general. In 2012, 61 percent of Latinos, 61 percent of Asian Americans and 56 percent of African Americans voted in favor of Prop 37 versus 46 percent of white women and 45 percent of those with a college degree.

While the demand for GE food labeling is often construed as an issue primarily important to affluent and college-educated white women, the above data shows that interest in GE food labeling is in fact very strong among minorities.

Wealth inequality often breaks down along racial and ethnic lines, making affordability and equal access a major stumbling block for QR code labeling as a national solution. According to the Pew Research Center, while smartphone ownership is about the same across races (white, black and Hispanic), those with lower incomes are less likely to own a smartphone, with only 52 percent of low-income individuals owning one.

Additionally, 48 percent of smartphone-dependent Americans have had to cancel or shut off smartphone service because maintaining service was a financial hardship. African Americans and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to have canceled or cut off their smartphone service. This means that if product information is relegated to smartphones, access to that information would be severely limited for many populations that do in fact care deeply about the food they feed themselves and their families.

QR codes and the glossy “smart labels” the food industry has trotted out are clearly attempts to placate consumers who want GE foods labeled. They think they can win over affluent and tech-savvy demographics, but those groups don’t even come close to representing the full extent of the food movement.

People across income, race and gender lines care about what’s in their food. Republicans and Democrats, city dwellers and rural dwellers, millennials and the elderly all care about what’s in their food and how it’s produced. Congress must ensure they are all served by requiring mandatory on-package labeling.

Rebecca Spector is the west coast director of Center for Food Safety.