USDA reviewing feasibility study for using QR codes to disclose GMOs ahead of new labeling law

USDA reviewing use of QR codes to disclose GMOs

Contrary to suggestions in a federal lawsuit filed against USDA earlier this month, the agency currently is reviewing a feasibility study exploring how electronic or digital disclosure, such as QR codes, might impact consumers’ ability to easily identify when food and beverages are made from genetically modified ingredients, according to an agency spokesman.

The study, conducted by Deloitte, which will assist in drafting the proposed rule for the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure standard, will be posted on the US Department of Agriculture's’ Agricultural Marketing Service website as soon as the review is complete, he added.

The agency’s comments directly contradict allegations in a federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety that USDA missed a Congressionally mandated deadline of July 29 to study the “potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have accessing to bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods.” 

According to the lawsuit, the study is essential to drafting the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure standard because it is “about one of the most controversial aspects of the law: the potential to allow food companies to forgo labeling their GE food packages with clear, easy-to-understand text,” which the advocacy group says is “the way food labeling has always been done.”

The group also alleges USDA failed to comply with Congress’ mandate that it “have meaningful public involvement in this critical study” through the solicitation and consideration of comments from the public.

In court documents, it adds that it fears delayed access to the study could delay the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which Congress ordered completed by the end of next July.

“USDA must act now, completing the study and immediately releasing it for public comment, before releasing the final results to inform the rulemaking, in order to prevent further statutory violations and further harm to the consumers,” the Center for Food Safety argues in the court documents.

While USDA cannot comment on ongoing litigation, the agency spokesman confirmed that the department anticipates having a draft of the proposed rule for the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard open for public comment later this year before the Congressionally mandated deadline.

The Deloitte study findings will be used to draft the proposed rule, and therefore will be subject to comment as part of the overall proposed rule when it is published, he said:

"AMS has received and is reviewing the Deloitte study.  It will be posted on the AMS website as soon as the review is complete.  The study will assist in drafting the proposed rule for the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which we anticipate will be open for public comment later this year."

Shortcomings of QR codes for GE labeling

While the results of the Deloitte study currently are not yet public, other research suggests that QR codes and websites will not provide sufficient disclosure to “a large portion of Americans,” according to the lawsuit.

The Center for Food Safety explains that “studies show that half of low-income people do not own smartphones. Almost half of rural people do not own smart phones,” of which for both groups minorities represent a disproportionate percentage.

In addition, it notes, two-thirds of the elderly do not own smart phones, and “in fact, only 64% of Americans own a smart phone.”

Even those who have smart phones, might not have access to the Internet while shopping or know how to use QR codes.

For those who do, using QR codes is still not ideal as a shopper would need to scan all of their products, which for a family of four “could easily amount to more than 50 items,” the advocacy group argues.

“As such,” it says in the lawsuit, “allowing labeling based on QR codes is discriminatory against the poor, rural Americans, minorities, the elderly and other groups less likely to own a smart phone or know how to use it.”

Given the stakes and the Center for Food Safety’s reading of the Congressional mandate, the group asks the court to order USDA to publish publicly the study as soon as reasonably predictable and solicit and consider public comments in conducting the study, according to the lawsuit.

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