Ensuring the success of electronic bioengineered foods disclosure

by Jay Sjerven
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The U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Marketing Service was charged with developing on-package text and symbols.
 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sept. 6 released a study conducted on its behalf by Deloitte that identified technological issues that should be addressed to ensure consumers are able to access the required bioengineered food disclosure through electronic or digital methods. The study’s conclusion: “While there are some notable challenges, most consumers would be able to access this information given the proper education and tools to do so.”

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on July 29, 2016, directed the U.S.D.A. to establish a mandatory national disclosure standard for genetically engineered foods. Food manufacturers will be required to disclose bioengineered foods by July 2018. To do so, they may employ one of three methods: text that will appear on packages, an on-package symbol or an electronic or digital link.

The U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Marketing Service was charged with developing on-package text and symbols. It also must develop guidelines governing the use of electronic or digital links, should food manufacturers select that option.

The act already specifies certain regulations for manufacturers that choose to use electronic or digital links. This approach must include on-package language stating “scan here for more information,” or equivalent language reflecting changes in the technology. Access to the disclosure located in a consistent and conspicuous manner on the first product information page that appears also is required, and this page may not contain marketing or promotional information. And a telephone number must be featured on the package that provides access to the disclosure.

The Deloitte study analyzed data from more than 150 observations or in-depth discussions and nearly 1,000 crowd-sourced participants across the country.

Throughout the 76-page study, Deloitte provided a number of takeaways for consideration. According to the study, 53% of adults say they care about the issue of bioengineered food. Seventy-seven per cent of Americans own a smartphone, and ownership rates are trending upward. Deloitte found that 93.6% of Americans live in areas with sufficient broadband access to load bioengineering disclosure through an electronic or digital link.

Deloitte said 62% of interested consumers believe they would be able to access an electronic or digital food disclosure. But the firm found consumers face four primary technological challenges in using electronic or digital links. First, digital links are not inherently associated with additional food information. Second, consumers may not have access to equipment capable of scanning digital links. Third, the market provides hundreds of scanning apps, many of which are not intuitive to use. And four, consumers may be unable to connect to broadband.

Looking ahead, Deloitte said, “In order for the law to have intended outcomes for interested consumers, U.S.D.A. and interested groups should address technological challenges and contributing factors.”

Deloitte said scanners require the installation of WiFi networks in store, which may be cost prohibitive for small retailers. Also, installing in-store scanners may provide limited benefit to retailers due to limited consumer understanding and rapidly changing technology.

The firm added that without an educational campaign, the law may result in increased cost to retailers and manufacturers without providing additional benefit for consumers.

Offline alternatives are necessary for consumers who lack access to a scanning device or broadband, Deloitte continued. And the U.S.D.A. should consider developing or endorsing user-friendly scanner apps to enable consumers to access information.

In its response to the study, the Grocery Manufacturers Association agreed a consumer education campaign will be a vital part of the implementation and roll-out of the bioengineering disclosure regulations.

The G.M.A. pointed to The U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2016 research by the Food Marketing Institute that showed that 20% of shoppers already scan QR (quick-response codes) or traditional barcodes of grocery items — and another 36% are interested in doing so.

The G.M.A. also pointed to its SmartLabel digital and electronic disclosure initiative, which already has incorporated more than 14,000 food, beverage, personal care and household products from more than 35 companies. 

“The U.S.D.A. study on electronic and digital disclosure of bioengineered food products is an important part of the agency’s work to develop a proposed rule for the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law,” the G.M.A. said. “We look forward to reviewing its findings in greater detail.”

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