A new law allows food producers to use digital codes to inform consumers that food contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients — but will consumers use smartphones or in-store readers to scan those quick-response (QR) codes?
Four in 10 Americans say they are either somewhat or very likely to use their mobile phones or in-store scanners to learn whether a product contains GM ingredients, according to a new Annenberg Science Knowledge (ASK) survey by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and the Rutgers University department of human ecology. However, 21% say they are not too likely to do so, and 38% say it is not likely at all, the survey found.
GM foods have been on the market in the U.S. for 20 years, ut the legislation approved by Congress on July 14 requires, for the first time, that food products in the U.S. containing GM ingredients carry identifying labels. The bill calls for the use of on-package text, a symbol designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or an electronic or digital link such as a QR code that, when scanned or read by a smartphone or an in-store reader, would connect consumers to a website with more information.
“The question is whether consumers will use QR codes to find out whether food products on store shelves have GM ingredients,” said William K. Hallman, a 2016-17 visiting scholar at APPC and professor in the Rutgers department of human ecology.
The ASK survey of 1,011 U.S. adults was conducted July 21-25, before President Barack Obama signed the labeling law on July 29.
Twenty-nine percent of Americans report that they have already used their mobile phones or a store scanner to scan UPC or QR codes to find the price of a product or to check out at a store in the past 12 months, and 15% say they have used these codes to find information about a product’s ingredients or nutrition information during the same period, the survey found.
Women and those who say they have scanned UPC or QR codes in the last year were more likely to say they would scan these codes to see if the product contains GM ingredients, Hallman said.
While the GM labeling law allows companies to use QR codes, it also requires USDA to issue a report on their effectiveness before rules are finalized.
Likely effect of GM labeling on purchases
Nearly half of Americans say that they would be much less likely (31%) or somewhat less likely (18%) to purchase a food product if they learned that it contained GM ingredients, about four in 10 (42%) say it would make no difference in their intentions to buy that product and 6% say learning that a food product is genetically modified would make them more likely to purchase it.
Those who say they are less likely to purchase foods if they contain GM ingredients also say they are more likely to scan UPC or QR codes to find out if products contain those ingredients. “Because of this, it is likely that some food manufacturers will eliminate GM ingredients from their products,” Hallman said.
Americans likely underestimate how much GM food they eat
In the ASK survey, a third of Americans (34%) believed they had eaten "some or a great deal" of GM food in the past week, a third (34%) said they had consumed "not much or none at all" and a third (32%) said they did not know. In fact, according to USDA, in 2014, U.S. farmers planted GM crops on more than "90% of corn, soybean, cotton, canola and sugar beet acreage,” producing ingredients common in processed foods.
“Without mandatory labeling, consumers are unlikely to recognize that many of the food products they buy have genetically modified components,” Hallman said. The survey found that 28% of respondents thought that the labeling of GM foods was already mandated by law, while 54% were unsure whether such labeling is required. Only 18% knew that the labeling of GM foods was not mandatory prior to passage of the new law.
A previous study conducted by the same author found that most Americans are unaware of the scientific consensus that there is no substantiated evidence showing that GM organisms (GMOs) are unsafe, and a majority of the public (58%) acknowledges having only a fair or poor understanding of GMOs.
In the survey, only one in five people (22%) agreed that scientists have not found any risks to human health from eating GM foods, nearly half (48%) disagreed with that statement, while 25% neither agreed nor disagreed. Only 39% of people agreed that “GMO crops are safe to eat,” while 27% disagreed with that statement, and 30% neither agreed nor disagreed.
Read more about how Vermont will be advocating for on-package labels rather than QR codes as well as how the American Farm Bureau Federation is advocating for more education about the usefulness of QR codes in this related story.