Sanders, five Dem colleagues question GMA on SmartLabel initiative

By Stephen Davies

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 22, 2016 - Six senators have asked the Grocery Manufacturers Association to explain how shoppers without smartphones will be able to use the so-called SmartLabel initiative GMA has proposed to get information about the food they're buying.

Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy from Connecticut, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jon Tester of Montana, along with Independent Bernie Sanders, the Vermonter who's running for president as a Democrat, sent a letter on Thursday with the request to GMA President and CEO Pamela Bailey. They asked for a response by Feb. 17.

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GMA said it's working on a response.

The letter comes as groups representing different views on GMO labeling are talking about a compromise in meetings hosted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has backed something similar to the SmartLabel. The progress of the negotiations, if they can be called that, has thus far been as secretive as is possible in Washington, D.C.

In their letter, the senators said many consumers won't be able to use the plan (which would be voluntary on the part of manufacturers) either because they don't have smartphones or because their smartphones aren't properly equipped to scan the barcode or QR code.

“According to the Pew Research Center, only 68 percent of American adults own a smartphone - many of which do not necessarily 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? 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?”

The lawmakers also raised privacy concerns. Many consumers “are worried about how this initiative will affect their privacy. 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?”

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“Lastly, we are concerned that the SmartLabel initiative faces many technical hurdles that will affect consumer access to critical information that they will not have access to by simply reading a product's label,” they said. “Different smartphone models vary greatly in their ability to quickly and easily scan QR codes.”

In a Dec. 2 press release, when GMA announced the initiative, the association said, “A number of retailers have said that they can help shoppers without smartphones via their customer service desk in stores. In addition, both online and brick and mortar stores are exploring ways to make SmartLabel more accessible to their customers such as by posting the SmartLabel link on their page to allow access in one click or through customer service desks.”

A few days later, Jim Flannery, GMA's senior executive vice president for operations and industry collaboration, wrote, “If I have no access to the Internet, I'll bet the store where I'm shopping does or can access the information. The only way people can't get the information is if they really don't try looking.”

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