A group of lawmakers—including Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—expressed concerns about the new SmartLabel program intended to provide consumers with more information about the ingredients in the food they purchase.
Recently, the Grocery Manufacturers Association launched the initiative in conjunction with more than 30 food, beverage, and consumer product companies. Participants place a bar code or QR code on their products that, when scanned by a consumer's smartphone, provide a link to a landing page with information on ingredients and other attributes of the product.
While agreeing that consumers "have a right to easy access of basic information about their food" in order to make informed decisions, the senators—including Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mt.), and Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.)—wondered about "anti-consumer loopholes" in the program.
"We worry that this initiative will instead make it more difficult for consumers to learn basic information about the food products they are buying, such as whether a product contains a specific allergen or whether the product uses genetically engineered ingredients," the legislators wrote. "Specifically, we have concerns with respect to the implementation of this program and how GMA intends to address issues that deal with consumer privacy, discrimination, and technical feasibility."
With respect to discrimination, a large segment of the population does not own a smartphone and many consumers do not subscribe to mobile broadband, the senators said. "How will GMA ensure that consumers who don't have smartphones—typically lower income, less educated, or elderly individuals—are able to access important food labeling information while they are shopping in the grocery store aisles?" the letter asked. "How will GMA make these shoppers aware of the SmartLabel initiative? How will you measure the efficacy or consumer use of this initiative and will such reporting be made publicly available?"
Consumer privacy concerns also prompted questions from the lawmakers. "Eating habits and preferences are personal, and consumers deserve to be able to scrutinize labels without worrying about food manufacturers gathering their information, creating profiles about them, and possibly sharing or selling this information," the senators wrote. "What promises will manufacturers participating in the SmartLabel initiative make to consumers to assure their privacy and that their information will not be used or sold?"
Technological hurdles may impact consumer access, the legislators noted, since different smartphone models greatly vary in their ability to scan QR codes, since not all grocery stores provide free Wi-Fi or even decent cellphone service, and that crinkly packages add additional complications. "What steps will your members take to resolve these numerous technological considerations?" the legislators asked. "What commitments do you have with food retailers to ensure that these issues, among others, are addressed?"
The lawmakers requested a response from the GMA by February 17.
To read the letter from lawmakers, click here.
Why it matters: "Consumers have the right to clear, truthful and concise food labels regarding key information about the food products they are purchasing," the senators told the GMA. While pleased with the industry's attempt to supply consumers with information about their purchases, the lawmakers are looking for answers about discrimination, privacy, and technological concerns.