WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2016 - The food industry, which is lobbying Congress to preempt state biotech labeling laws, is assuring Democratic senators that a smartphone-based disclosure system can provide all consumers, including the poor, the information they want about product ingredients. 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association sent a letter to six senators Wednesday pledging that the industry’s new SmartLabel system would protect the privacy of consumers while still providing them quick access to a wide range of product information, including the presence of GMOs as well as the presence of allergens.

“We are committed to transparency and meeting strong consumer interests for more information on food ingredients, such as nutrition, environmental, religious and sustainability factors. SmartLabel was built to do just that,” the GMA letter says. 

The SmartLabel information also will be available on the internet, and most retailers will be prepared to help shoppers get access to the information in stores, the group said. 

The letter comes as Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has been preparing a draft bill that would block states from requiring labeling of biotech foods. Roberts hopes to increase pressure on Democrats to support a preemption measure. The first such labeling law is set to take effect this summer in Vermont. 

Roberts told Agri-Pulse Wednesday afternoon that he wasn’t sure whether the bill would be ready for release this week. 

Roberts declined to discuss details of the measure but didn’t rule out making disclosure of GMO ingredients mandatory. That has been a bottom line for the committee’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

The food industry wants to be allowed to disclose information about biotech ingredients voluntarily though the SmartLabel system rather than being required to put it on labels. The Food and Drug Administration says it doesn’t have the legal authority to mandate the labeling of biotech foods. 

The six senators, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont, wrote GMA on Jan. 21, questioning how easily available the SmartLabel information could be accessed and raising privacy concerns about consumers’ personal data. The other senators who signed that letter were Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jon Tester of Montana. 

“While we recognize that the companies committed to this initiative are taking a step towards supplying consumers with the information that they deserve to have access to, we are troubled that this initiative may have significant anti-consumer loopholes,” the senators wrote. 

“We worry that this initiative will instead make it more difficult for consumers to learn basic information about the food products that they are buying, such as whether a product contains a specific allergen or whether the product uses genetically engineered ingredients.”

The senators note that about 64 percent of consumers currently have smartphones, according to a Pew study. The GMA response says the Pew study demonstrates that smartphone penetration has been growing fast: It’s up from 35 percent four years ago and is expected to exceed 80 percent by 2018, the group said. 

GMA notes that 71 percent of Hispanics and 70 percent of African-Americans own smartphones. The letter also cited a 2014 study of Texas WIC clients that found that 68 percent owned a smart phone.

Tester, an organic farmer who believes biotech foods should be labeled, wasn’t won over by the GMA letter. 

“The SmartLabel system is no substitute for information that belongs right on the package.  It is a gimmick that keeps folks from knowing exactly what is in their food,” he said.