Center for Food Safety Sues USDA Over GMO QR Codes Study

Sept. 4, 2017
Agency decries USDA's failure to disclose results of a study on practicality of QR codes.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) on Aug. 25 filed a federal lawsuit against USDA for not meeting a deadline to disclose results of a study on the use of QR codes on food packaging to disclose the presence of genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs).

"That study was required to be finished by July 2017, with an opportunity for public participation, but USDA never completed the study or published it for public comment," CFS said in a statement accompanying the lawsuit.

When Congress passed the bipartisan GMO labeling bill in July of 2016, it allowed for three options including, as a compromise with members of the food industry, use of a QR code that would take shoppers to a website on which GMOs and other facts about the product would be revealed.

“Because this is a controversial topic and crucial decision, Congress required this QR code study be completed by July and that the public’s views be included. In court, statutory directives matter — not tweets," said George Kimbrell, legal director for CFS. "We won’t let the Trump Administration get away with ignoring the law.”

There have been indications the Trump Administration and its appointed heads of USDA and FDA would delay or reconsider several Obama administration rules that impose new requirements on the food industry. Big Food, with the exception of Campbell Soup, has opposed GMO labeling while Little Food supports it.

"Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and the U.S. Department of Agriculture [named as defendants in the suit] are charged with implementing the new labeling rules, and part of that process is a study on 'electronic and digital disclosures' (like QR codes) for GE [GMO] foods, as opposed to on-package text," CFS said. The law requires USDA to establish federal standards for labeling by July 2018. "The withheld study will inform the agency’s ultimate decision, which is why it was required to be completed a year earlier."

The QR code, which was supported by Big Food and created by its lobbying group, Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA), would require shoppers to use a smart phone to scan packages to access a website or call an 800-number for every single product to find out if it was produced with genetic engineering.

Not only is this burdensome for all shoppers, but critics have said lower-income people may not have internet-accessible smart phones, hiding the GMO information from a significant share of the shopping public.

“Americans deserve nothing less than clear on-package labeling, the way food has always been labeled,” continued Kimbrell. “Allowing companies to hide genetically engineered ingredients behind a website or QR code is discriminatory and unworkable.”

CFS noted:

  • Studies show that half of low-income people do not own smartphones.
  • Almost half of rural people do not own smart phones.
  • Minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of low-income and rural Americans.
  • Two-thirds of the elderly do not own smart phones.
  • Overall, only 64 percent of Americans own a smart phone.
  • Few people have ever used a QR code: only 16% have ever scanned a QR code and only 3% of those people do it regularly.

"A shopper would have to scan all of the many items s/he is shopping for on any given shopping trip (which for a family of four could easily amount to more than 50 items). This would be an undue burden on the consumer and greatly impede access to information that is currently required for all other forms of food labeling."

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