- The mandated study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday looked into challenges in providing GMO disclosures through scanning using a smartphone. It uncovered several potential consumer issues with implementation and use of the codes.
- While a majority of consumers had access to a smartphone (only 12% completely lacked access), many weren't aware that a QR code on the package could potentially contain information useful to them. Additionally, shoppers were confused about which scanner app to use, complaining that some had unclear instructions and others were interrupted by advertisements.
- Grocery stores tend to lack the infrastructure needed to help consumers access the information they would scan on the package. Many stores don't have in-store WiFi for customers to be able to use, and no stores had technology that could scan codes on packages for information without a smartphone.
The study, the release of which was the subject of a now-moot lawsuit from the Center for Food Safety last month, deepens the insight that lawmakers, regulators, manufacturers and retailers have on how consumers use in-store scannable package label technology. And while the 72-page report has a lot of data, the findings — and recommendations to manufacturers and retailers — are largely unsurprising.
This study was mandated as part of the GMO labeling law, which was signed by President Obama last year. One of the more controversial aspects of the law, which requires manufacturers to specifically label genetically modified ingredients, allows this label to be just an electronic or digital link on the package. Many opponents argued this electronic disclosure, which could be a smartphone-scannable QR code, was not sufficient. A provision was added that required this study to look into the label's challenges and issues.
The review was supposed to be published in July, but a USDA spokesman told Food Navigator the delay in publication came because it was being internally reviewed.
The main finding — that consumer education is needed to let people know that a QR code or other scannable label is there to provide more information — should be rather unsurprising. While a growing number of products feature QR codes as part of the Grocery Manufacturer's Association's unrelated SmartLabel initiative — more than 14,000, according to a statement from the industry group published Thursday — it has not yet been widely publicized among consumers.
The QR code saw its heyday as more people got smartphones in 2011 and 2012, with the scannable black and white squares appearing everywhere, but largely fell off the radar in 2013. In the years since, the codes have been slowly reappearing in places where they can be scanned to get more information, but are nowhere near as trendy or of-the-moment as they once were.
GMA had always planned to start a consumer education campaign on SmartLabel once there is a sizeable number of store products with the codes. As more companies implement the label, which provides a wealth of product information to consumers, this education campaign — coupled with other efforts retailers, manufacturers or the government may individually take spurred by this study — could once again make the QR code ubiquitous.
Another factor that could make QR code use more common among consumers is that technology is advancing so people may not need a separate smartphone app to read them. It has been reported the next big upgrade to Apple's iPhone operating system, set to hit phones later this year, will contain an automatic QR code scanner in the built-in camera app. Reports claim the app will automatically look for WiFi networks when a code is scanned, solving the potential problem of not having enough bandwidth to transmit the needed information.
The technological hurdles for retailers pointed out in the study are not necessarily going to be taken care of by other initiatives. However, movements toward more access to technology in general will help. Currently, the study says 20% of retailers have no in-store WiFi — a number that is likely to shrink as stores pursue their own omnichannel, microtargeted advertising and smart coupon strategies. And for the stores that don't have plans to add their own networks because of connectivity and bandwidth challenges in their areas or strains on cost, adding in-store scanners — similar to the ones that let shoppers do price checks in big-box sores — will likely become a more popular option.
Industry groups had positive reactions to the study.
"Our findings concur there is a majority and increasing number of our members’ customers who are able and willing to use digital means to access detailed product information when they want that information," Food Marketing Institute President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said in a written statement. "Increasingly shoppers have the hardware and Wi-Fi or cellular access available to them to do so. Of course in the tradition of food retail’s strong history of customer service, we recognize the need to provide supplemental education to our customers about the information available to them and how to best use the QR Code. And, we are planning to do so in a concerted effort as soon as the final rule is issued and implementation begins.”
In a statement, the GMA said it "strongly supports consumers having tools and information to make informed decisions about the products they buy and use. A consumer education campaign will be a vital part of the implementation and rollout of the bioengineering disclosure regulations.”