QR codes in bioengineered food labels

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QR, or “Quick-Access,” codes have become the thing to use these days in conveying information, for pretty much anything you can think of. From restaurant menus, to job opportunities, to product labels, QR codes are the go-to for access to info. But manufacturers are now using QR codes more pervasively in food labeling. More specifically, they’re being used in bioengineered food labels, raising some major concern among consumers.

If you are a health-conscious eater, avoiding certain ingredients that you’re either allergic to, or believe are bad for your health, you probably have noticed a change.  On many food packages, the seemingly “handy” QR code has replaced much of the information you’re used to seeing. The switch is a bold move by the manufacturers, no doubt with their own agenda in mind.

Consumers have raised questions regarding the ethics of such a move, particularly when it comes to bioengineered food ingredients. The Deloitte Study of Electronic Food Disclosure from 2017 cites 53% of Americans as having an interest in the issue of bioengineered foods and bioengineered food labels. I wonder how many of those Americans would rather read a label with their own eyes than have to scan a code to figure out what’s in the food beneath it.

It’s quicker to read bioengineered food labels than scan a code

I don’t know about you, but I do not have time to scan a QR code to find out more ingredient information when I’m shopping. Often, those QR codes are so small, they take a few attempts at scanning to actually work. Sometimes, my phone isn’t on WiFi, or I don’t even have my phone with me. Still, I’m a consumer who some would say is privileged with my smartphone. Tens of thousands of Americans do not even own a cell phone, let alone a smartphone with a camera. This number particularly includes low-income Americans, and the elderly. Indeed, the allowance of the QR codes is at the very least discriminatory. But is it lawful?

In September of 2022, a Federal court in California declared that using a QR code alone for labeling of bioengineered food ingredients is, in fact, unlawful. The court ruled that a revision to the USDA’s National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard was in order. The revision demands that consumers must be able to obtain information regarding bioengineered food ingredients via additional methods. Labels must also include a telephone number, or a symbol signifying the presence of a bioengineered food ingredient. However, these new options that accompany the use of the QR code, still do not seem to be helpful. They add an extra step, forcing consumers to spend more time in the store.

Change in food labeling isn’t always a good thing

bioengineered food labels

In our ever-evolving technological world, advancements in how we shop, and how we access information, shouldn’t become a hindrance to daily life. When it comes to food disclosures, what is wrong with plain language, printed on the label? Why are a QR code, telephone number, or a misleading symbol acceptable forms of food ingredient disclosure? This change doesn’t seem like a good thing at all.

More Americans need to be involved in this highly controversial topic. There needs to be more demand for transparency in food labeling. While it is our responsibility to be wise stewards of our health, the manufacturers of the foods we consume have a responsibility, too. Honest communication regarding their products goes a long way in a respectful relationship with consumers. Consumers should be able to guard their health, without having to spend extra time trying to decipher codes and symbols while shopping in a crowded store.

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