New GMO Labeling Law Hides Information Behind QR Codes, Critics Charge

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By Danica Lo Posted August 02, 2016

President Obama signs a GMO labeling bill into law—but do the new rules make information hard to access?

After quickly wending its way through the Senate and the House of Representatives, a bill mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods has been signed into law by President Obama. The law requires that any food containing bioengineered material that "could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature" be affixed with an electronic or digital "link disclosure"—such as a QR code or URL leading to GMO ingredient information—alongside a phone number customers may call for more information, as well, if they choose.

How will this new legislation affect your supermarket experience? Probably not a whole lot, at least for the next two years, which is how long the United States' Secretary of Agriculture has to come up with enforceable rules, regulations, and standards.

Large food companies—such as General Mills, Mars, Kellogg's, and ConAgra—have already started nationally labeling GMO products as of this summer, per a state law passed in Vermont. General Mills also provides an easily-searchable index of its products online, which allows consumers to immediately access information on GMO ingredients. And in April this year, when Kellogg's announced it would start labeling its American products with GMO indicators, company president, Paul Norman, released a statement urging the government to get on with standardizing the process.

"We continue to strongly urge Congress to pass a uniform, federal solution for the labeling of GMOs to avoid a confusing patchwork of state-by-state rules," Norman said. "Transparency is more than just a label, and we have invested in many ways to make it easy for consumers to find information about our food."

So food producers got their requested legislation and consumers will have easier access to information—so the new GMO labeling law is a win-win, right? Activists say no—on account of inaccessibility and too many hoops to jump through.

"The new DARK Act prescribes a two-year void followed by unenforceable, vague, and poorly-written rules that, at best, require 800 numbers and QR codes—codes that can't be accessed by the 100 million Americans who don't own expensive smartphones," the Non-GMO Project writes on its blog.

Consumer watchdog website Consumerist also points out the bill's vague language—and obvious loopholes—written by two senators who have a recent history of accepting more than $2.1 million in donations from agricultural businesses in just one election cycle. And the Washington Post points out that there "aren't enough penalties for companies that don't comply." The new legislation also pre-empts a Vermont bill that was enacted last month requiring food made with GMO ingredients to be explicitly labeled: "Produced with genetic engineering"—which, arguably, is far more direct messaging than asking a shopper to scan a QR code.

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