WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2015 - The food industry is launching a smartphone-based system that companies hope will satisfy consumer demands for information about genetically engineered ingredients, livestock production methods and other product attributes. 

The SmartLabel system, which also will allow consumers to find the information on the web as through the phone-based QR code on package labels, is designed in part to address demands for labeling of biotech foods.

The announcement of the system comes as the industry is furiously lobbying Congress to use a government-wide appropriations bill to pass legislation that would block state GMO labeling laws and direct the Agriculture Department to set a national definition for genetically engineered products. 

“We all have a desire to get the information that consumers want to them,” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “We happen to think that electronic disclosure is the very best way to do that.” 

The Hershey Co. will be the first company to adopt the SmartLabel in coming weeks. About 30 companies are expected to put information about GMO ingredients in the Smart Label system for about 20,000 products over the next couple of years. Those would represent about two-thirds of the items that could contain biotech ingredients in the average supermarket. 

But many other manufacturers are waiting enactment of a national standard for disclosing biotech ingredients, according to GMA, which spearheaded development of SmartLabel. 

The legislation under development, which would be significantly different than a GMO labeling preemption bill that passed the House this summer, would order USDA to decide what biotech breeding methods would make a product genetically engineered. 

“We believe it’s critical for our companies and consumers to have a universal definition. … People like to attack companies for using different definitions for different things,” said Denzel McGuire, GMA’s executive vice president for government relations. 

Traditionally, the definition of a GMO has applied primarily to transgenic crops, in which a gene has been inserted from another organism, such as a bacterium. But biotech seed developers are increasingly using techniques such as gene editing or RNA interference to create new traits in crops, including disease resistance as well as more healthful oils. 

The legislation under development also would require USDA to set a standard for products to be considered non-GMO if they contain trace amounts of biotech material.

The future of the legislation, however, is in some doubt. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, who has been spearheading negotiations on the measure, told Agri-Pulse this week that she has reached an impasse because of resistance to mandatory disclosure through the electronic system. But Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, indicated the issue is still under discussion. 

The industry refuses to agree to requiring food labels to contain a symbol or wording calling attention to GMO ingredients. 

The Obama administration has been assisting the development of the legislation, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been publicly encouraging smartphone-based GMO disclosure for about two years. 

"Utilizing technology to provide consumers additional information about their food has been something I have discussed with industry for several years. I am pleased to see this new tool become available and applaud the companies that contributed to the effort,” Vilsack said in a statement released by GMA.

Companies have some latitude in how they disclose GMOs and other product attributes. For biotech ingredients, foodmakers can say a product does contain,  may contain or doesn’t contain GMOs. If the company says the product is biotech-free it must say on what basis the claim is being made. 

Companies that disclose farm-production methods such as “cage-free” will have to use a standardized dictionary definition. 

Many consumer and environmental activists continue to push for mandatory labeling of biotech foods. 

“GMO labeling via QR code technology is unworkable, threatens privacy and is discriminatory since more than a third of Americans, many of whom are low-income or live in rural areas with poor Internet access, don’t own smartphones,” said Lisa Archer, food and technology program director at Friends of the Earth.

Some 88 percent of consumers favor mandatory GMO disclosure while 8 percent prefer putting it in smartphone codes, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Just Label It Coalition. The survey was conducted by the Mellman Group in November.

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The SmartLabel system also will be used on pet foods and personal care products. GMA estimates that within five years, more than 80 percent of the food, beverage, pet care, personal care and household products will use SmartLabel.

A SmartLabel app is under development but it won’t be needed to read the QR code. 

In addition to Hershey, the companies that have committed to using the SmartLabel system so far include ConAgra Foods, Hormel Foods, Campbell Soup Co., Land O’Lakes, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle, J.M. Smucker Co., Kellogg Co., General Mills, McCormick & Co.,Tyson Foods Inc., Clorox, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Unilever.