Could smartphones solve the GMO labeling debate?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggests that instead of companies labeling food for genetically modified organisms, consumers could use their smart phones to scan bar code to determine if the products contain GMOs.

Brennan Linsley
File - A grocery store employee wipes down a soup bar with a display informing customers of organic, GMO-free oils, in Boulder, Colo.

In the ever-complicated debate over labeling of genetically modified foods, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offers this idea: Use your smartphone.

Vilsack told members of Congress on Wednesday that consumers could just use their phones to scan special bar codes or other symbols on food packages in the grocery store. All sorts of information could pop up, such as whether the food's ingredients include genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

"Industry could solve that issue in a heartbeat," Vilsack said during a House hearing on agriculture spending.

The Food and Drug Administration handles most food-package labeling, so Vilsack's idea isn't an official proposal. But the Agriculture secretary suggested it could head off the debate between the food industry and those who have pushed for package labels that identify GMOs.

He has mentioned the idea for bar codes before, but he said it could have new life as Congress becomes more involved in the issue. A Republican House bill would block state efforts to require GMO package labels, legislation that was introduced just as Vermont became the first state to require the labeling in 2014. That law will go into effect next year if it survives a legal challenge from the food industry.

Labeling advocates aren't signing on to Vilsack's idea. Scott Faber, head of the national Just Label It campaign, says most consumers don't have the know-how to use their phones to scan a bar code or so-called QR code, a commonly used scannable image.

"Consumers shouldn't have to have a high-tech smartphone and a 10-gigabyte data plan to know what's in their food," Faber said.

In response to those concerns, Vilsack has said in the past that there could also be in-store scanners, like those that check prices now.

Vilsack said some food companies have been receptive to the idea, though he didn't name any.

There's some indication that food companies are mulling something similar. A spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the food industry, said the group is "actively discussing ways to further provide consumers with this important information."

Jeff Beckman, a spokesman for The Hershey Co., said the company is working on new ways it can make ingredient and nutrition information "more readily accessible through new technologies." A spokeswoman for Nestle says that company is also part of a larger food industry discussion on the topic.

The bar codes would likely be an industry, not government, effort. An FDA spokeswoman said Vilsack's idea is "not currently under discussion" at that agency. The FDA doesn't require labeling for genetically modified foods and says they are safe.

Genetically modified seeds are engineered to have certain traits, like resistance to herbicides or certain plant diseases. The majority of the country's corn and soybean crop is now genetically modified, with much of that going to animal feed. Modified corn and soybeans are also made into popular processed food ingredients like corn oil, corn starch, high-fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.

Consumer advocates pushing for the labeling say shoppers have a right to know what is in their food, arguing that not enough is known about the effects of the technology. They have supported several state efforts to require labeling, with the eventual goal of having a federal standard. The food industry has vigorously opposed the effort, saying labels would be misleading because GMOs are safe.

Vilsack has been supportive of genetically modified crops, saying at the hearing that there is "no question in my mind" that they are safe. But he has called for the two sides to try to come together.

"A bar code seems the best way of doing it without picking sides," he said.

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