At the end of 2015, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group for food and beverage manufacturers, announced the launch of SmartLabel. This new labeling technology enables consumers to get additional details about products via a special landing page they reach by scanning a QR code with their phone or doing an online search.
But the technology has been controversial, as some GMO labeling advocates have said that scanning a label isn't an adequate substitute for on-package disclosure of genetically modified ingredients. Here, we asked GMA’s Jim Flannery, senior executive vice president, operations and industry collaboration, to weigh in on the goals and potential for SmartLabel as well as what it means for GMO disclosure.
What is the goal of the SmartLabel?
JF: SmartLabel was created for today’s consumers who are looking for an increasing amount of information about the products they use and consume. SmartLabel brings detailed information— beyond what is on packaging and labels—right to a consumer’s fingertips. This includes nutritional information, ingredients, allergens, third-party certifications, social compliance programs, usage instructions, advisories and safe handling instructions, company/brand information and much more. This is more information than can ever fit on a package label, and it can be provided digitally to consumers.
SmartLabel is also accessible in a number of ways, making the information available any time, any place—via a mobile device, through a quick Google search, by visiting a participating company’s or brand’s website, or using the online SmartLabel Product Search. We are also in the process of developing an app, which will make it even easier for consumers with smartphones.
This broad range of ways to access allows consumers to learn more about products no matter where and when they want the information.
How many companies have signed on to use the new SmartLabel, and when will shoppers start to see them on the shelves in large numbers? What are your projections for use?
JF: SmartLabel was just announced in December 2015 and, by August, there are already more than 2,225 products using SmartLabel from a variety of different companies, including natural foods companies such as Food For Life.
The number of products will continue to grow. We project that there will be more than 34,000 products using SmartLabel by the end of 2017. This includes food, beverage, personal care, pet care and household products. In five years, we expect that total to be 60,000, which would account for more than 80 percent of food, beverage, pet care, personal care and household products that consumers buy.
For the natural foods audience, it is interesting to note that of the 10 companies currently live, three of them would be considered natural/organic brands. These businesses have highly engaged consumers and information transparency is an important part of their equity. SmartLabel is quickly becoming a tool so brands with highly engaged consumers can provide those consumers the information they are seeking.
Why do you think a QR (or Quick Response) code is the best vehicle to communicate this kind of information?
JF: QR codes are just one of a few ways that consumers can access the information on SmartLabel. Within our toolbox, QR codes are very versatile, easy to use and cost effective. And because they are becoming increasingly common in today’s marketplace, consumers are more and more familiar with scanning them to get information.
In fact, there are hundreds of apps that read QR codes, such as Shazam, which has over 220 million downloads in the U.S., Shopsavvy with 100 million downloads, or Scanlife with nearly 80 million downloads, just to name a few. If your phone has a camera, you can read a QR code.
It’s important to remember that using a QR code is just one of several tools to access the information. As noted earlier, people can also visit the smartlabel.org website, run a web search, call the 800 number on a package and, in the months to come, use the official SmartLabel app, which is currently in development.
So access to the SmartLabel information is actually very easy and it's built to be accessible whichever way a consumer is most comfortable. In the end, use of things like a QR code have little to do with barcode technology and everything to do with the value consumers get when they reach the SmartLabel landing pages.
Who provides the information on the landing pages? Who fact-checks it?
JF: Each company participating in SmartLabel is responsible for its own product information. All information found using SmartLabel is bound by the same accuracy requirements as if it were printed on a package or label, and is subject to oversight by numerous federal agencies with authority over labeling, marketing and advertising of food and other consumer products, including the FDA, USDA and FTC.
What kinds of information can food manufacturers house on the landing page?
JF: Consumers don’t just want to know if a product contains an ingredient. They want to know what that ingredient is, why it is in the food, what it does and where it came from. They want to know a company’s social responsibility practices and environmental practices.
One of the strengths of SmartLabel is that it has over 380 attributes across food, beverage, personal care, household and pet care products organized in a consistent format, whether the consumer is looking at a gallon of ice cream or a gallon of laundry detergent.
A great way to see what can be found on SmartLabel is to check out some of the products on smartlabel.org. For example, you can see how much information is provided about ingredients for Hellman’s Mayo, including where the soybeans come from.
Do you think this will quell concerns surrounding GMO labeling?
JF: On July 29, President Obama signed the bipartisan national legislation requiring disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients. The law allows GMO ingredients to be disclosed by a symbol or text on the package, or by scanning an electronic or digital link. In fact, companies can already disclose GMOs through SmartLabel, and almost every food product that is currently live is doing so voluntarily. GMOs are now listed in the “other information” tab on SmartLabel. USDA will be writing the rules to implement the new law, and we expect that genetically engineered ingredients will be featured even more prominently on the first page of SmartLabel landing pages.
The most prevalent concerns voiced today center around the use of QR codes. But the issue is not the technology. Getting a QR code reader and scanning the code is very easy. The real issue is, will consumers get value from the information delivered?
We believe the 380 easy-to-find and consistently organized attributes provide that value. Consumers can find out if their item contains genetically engineered ingredients, what GMOs are and even why the technology is used. If the item is non-GMO, the consumer can also learn what that means and how that brand certifies that it is non-GMO.
Concerns about the QR code are misguided. The issue we need to deliver on is the value of the information provided. And we believe we do that.