- The Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture that demands the immediate public release of a study that explores challenges of using electronic and digital disclosures — such as QR codes — for federally mandated labeling of GMO ingredients, according to a statement from the group.
- The lawsuit says when Congress passed the labeling law last summer, members "recognized how unprecedented and controversial this potential option was." The law required the study to be completed by this July. The study also needs to be made available for public comment. To date, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service has not published the study.
- "In court, statutory directives matter— not tweets," Center for Food Safety Legal Director George Kimbrell, said in the written statement. "We won’t let the Trump Administration get away with ignoring the law.”
One of the most controversial aspects of the mandatory GMO labeling law signed by President Obama last summer is the use of a scannable barcode, such as a QR code, on the package label. Since the bill was debated in Congress, disagreement over whether the barcode is sufficient has reigned. While some argue that many consumers don't have the technology or knowhow to utilize the codes,others say a scannable code is accessible to most Americans, plus it has the potential of revealing in-depth information that does not fit on a product package.
The study evaluating this labeling system was supposedly on track and slated to be finished by July. A month before, Andrea Huberty, a senior policy analyst with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, told people at a Washington, D.C. food labeling conference that the department had partnered with Deloitte to get the study and it was on track for an on-time completion. However, nearly three months later, the study has not yet been publicized, even if it is finished.
Regardless of where groups stand on the QR code issue, the study is an important milestone to the law's implementation. The Center for Food Safety is clearly against disclosure by QR code — the lawsuit cites statistics about the high number of consumers who don't have access to smartphones and are unfamiliar with scanning QR codes — but the study is just as vital to those who would defend QR codes and other scannable technology, or those who have no opinion either way.
A big part of the issue is whether the USDA is going to be able to make the deadline to complete final rules for the law by July 2018. Huberty stressed in June that, while delayed, the government was on track. The only visible point of public comment since then was the department's publication of a list of questions for food producers in late June. Considering that some states have enacted their own GMO labeling laws, failure to meet the deadline could result in a patchwork of labeling laws nationwide.
GMO labeling aside, this study will be useful to the broader industry. As these types of labels slowly roll out across the food system — both through the unrelated SmartLabel program backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and on genetically modified produce such as Arctic apples — it's worth knowing how consumers respond to the technology and whether they take advantage of it. If more work is needed, including better education on how the codes work or improved internet connectivity for grocery customers, those stakeholders may want to get involved soon in those efforts.