WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2017 - Despite the widespread availability of smartphones, a study says consumers face a number of technological challenges in using the devices to get information about bioengineered foods, the key method for disclosing GMO ingredients under a 2016 law. 

The study, which was required by the law and conducted by the consultant group Deloitte under contract with the Department of Agriculture, said that an extensive educational campaign will be needed to implement the law and that USDA should consider developing or endorsing user-friendly scanner apps for consumers to use.

The study also suggests development of “offline alternatives,” including the use of text messages, to enable consumers to get information on biotech ingredients. The law said that If additional disclosure methods were needed USDA is required to provide them after consulting with food retailers and manufacturers. 

The study said that while 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone and 94 percent have adequate broadband access to scan a digital code on a food label, consumers aren’t aware of the digital links and many would face challenges in using the codes that they’re not even aware of.

For example, there are hundreds of phone apps on the market for scanning the codes but many of them aren’t intuitive to use. Eighty-five percent of the consumers that the researchers observed trying to use the apps struggled with them. 

“Put simply, consumers may not know the challenges they face in accessing digital disclosure until they actually try to access it,” the study said. 

The study also said consumers may be unable to get a broadband connection that’s fast enough to load the product information. 

The study also found that retailers themselves were unaware digital links could provide additional food information. The researchers visited 42 retailers nationwide and found only two that knew what information was available via the codes. “In a visit to a high-end national specialty food retailer in a Midwestern city, researchers asked eight employees what they would find in scanning a digital link and not a single person knew the content or how to access it.”

Passed in 2016, the law preempted state GMO labeling mandates. It requires disclosure of biotech ingredients but allows it to be done through electronic methods, including the QR codes. Smaller food companies are allowed to put a phone number on labels that consumers can call for the ingredient information. 

The law shut down a labeling requirement that had taken effect a few weeks earlier in Vermont.

The Deloitte study said the challenges could be overcome through proper implementation of the law, but in a list of “key takeaways,” the authors warned that without an educational campaign, “the law may result in increased cost to retailers and manufacturers without providing additional benefit for consumers.” 

Another takeaway was the need for offline alternatives, such as the text messages that transit users in some cities use to request estimated arrival times of buses or trains. “A similar approach could be taken with food products, where consumers could text a code to a phone number provided on package and receive the bioengineering disclosure via SMS text.”

The law gives USDA until July 2018 to issue a rule to implement the disclosure requirement. 

The study “simply confirms that successful implementation of this law will require clear rules for this unprecedented digital disclosure,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group. 

“At the end of the day consumers will expect to be able to take out their phone, quickly and consistently scan the code and get the information they are seeking,” he said.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association issued a statement  late Wednesday saying that the  "recognizes the challenges and opportunities for the consumer to access ingredient information through electronic and digital links, and found that ‘most consumers would be able to access this information given the proper education and tools to do so.’

“GMA strongly supports consumers having tools and information to make informed decisions about the products they buy and use. A consumer education campaign will be a vital part of the implementation and rollout of the bioengineering disclosure regulations.”

GMA noted that the law requires the QR code to be accompanied by text that says, “Scan here for more food information.” 

The authors of the Deloitte study said it was designed to understand how consumers actually use and understand the technology, getting beyond what they might say in surveys. 

Some 994 consumers were engaged in crowdsourced discussions. The researchers conducted more than 40 in-depth conversations with consumers who were interested in getting information about biotech products. 

More than 75 consumers were watched by the researchers while they shopped for groceries.  The researchers visited 42 retailers to study their broadband access, landline availability and their ability to assist shoppers with scanning electronic or digital links.

The study included anecdotes about the consumers who participated in the study. The consumers’ last names were not included.  One consumer, identified as Pam, a long-time resident of rural Vermont, owned a flip-phone and would not be able to scan QR codes on her own. 

Jolanda, a mother of two who shops for her large family in a tribal region in the Southwest, owns a smartphone but the battery life is so poor she can’t use it for anything other than phone calls or text messages unless it is plugged in.

A couple identified as living in a Midwestern city, Peter and Yemi, said they constantly struggle to find space for apps on their phones. “In the midst of our conversation, Yemi received a pop-up notification that she was running low on storage space. Neither had space available for a new app, particularly without knowing what they would get from scanning a digital link on a food package,” the study said. 

(Updated with GMA statement.)