In a letter addressed to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue published on Tuesday by a group of 11 U.S. senators pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) arm to consider consumers’ need to easily access information on food ingredients as the AMS crafts rules on product labeling of bioengineered (GE) food ingredients.
“All Americans have the right to know what is in their food and how their food is produced,” the letter stated. “We are writing to urge you and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to consider carefully the rights and will of the American people as the AMS undertakes a rulemaking process to develop a national standard for clear, accessible labels for food products containing bioengineered (GE) ingredients.”
The letter’s authors include Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Senators identified “obstacles Americans would face while attempting to access GE ingredient information through digital or electronic disclosures.” Under new food labeling laws passed in 2016, the USDA is required to create a new food product labeling system that identifies bioengineered ingredients. The present form of the law permits electronic or digital labeling of GE ingredients, including QR codes for smartphones.
“We are particularly concerned about the potential use of quick response (QR) codes to label bioengineered foods. QR codes present obstacles for Americans who do not possess smartphones; Americans who live and shop in areas without broadband or cellular network access; and Americans who simply do not have the experience, education, or training to access information using these codes,” the letter said.
Pointing to recent research showing a quarter of Americans do not own a smartphone to scan QR codes, the authors of the letter said those living in rural areas may be adversely impacted by the rules.
According to the letter, the senators’ concerns include:
· Bioengineered ingredient disclosures should consist of clearly worded, on-package text labels indicating the presence of these GE ingredients. QR codes or other electronic disclosure methods should not be used until broadband internet access and smartphone adoption are near universal, and no longer present obstacles to consumer access to bioengineered ingredient information.
· QR codes should not be used on packages that are too founded or glossy, or otherwise hinder scanning equipment in any way.
· Consumers should be able to understand fully any GE ingredient disclosure, digital or otherwise. It should be plainly obvious through text that QR codes, phone numbers, or other disclosures will lead consumers to GE ingredient information.
· Digital or electronic disclosure methods should not be used until all grocery stores provide QR code scanners in every aisle, and provide secure, high-speed wireless internet for shoppers who can and would like to use their smartphones to access these disclosures.
· GE ingredient information must appear first if it is disclosed through electronic or digital methods, as required by the law. Likewise, GE ingredient information cannot be presented alongside marketing information. This information is to be provided as a service to consumers, not an advertising opportunity for food companies.
To read the full text of the letter to Secretary Perdue, click here.