With consumers pushing food and beverage manufacturers for more transparency, consumer product companies hope the new SmartLabel technology due to be rolled out next year will be the solution. However, the rumblings from some consumer groups has already begun.
Designed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), SmartLabel will give consumers easy access to detailed information on thousands of products by scanning a barcode or doing an online search to reach a page with information on product ingredients and other factoids. To date, more than 30 major companies—including Hormel Foods, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Kellogg, General Mills, Hershey and ConAgra—have committed to using the new technology. Some companies started offering products with SmartLabel late this year, and others plan to start using it early next year. It is projected that nearly 30,000 total products will be using SmartLabel by the end of 2017, and 80 percent of the industry will be onboard within the next five years.
“People are asking more questions about the products they buy, use and consume, and SmartLabel puts detailed information right at their fingertips,” says Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of GMA. “SmartLabel is a modern technology that will change how people shop and help them get immediate answers to the questions they have about products.”
According to GMA, a recent survey by Benenson Strategy Group found 75 percent of consumers would be likely to use SmartLabel, which the organization points to as evidence of a consumer desire for more information.
So, how does it work? Each product participating with SmartLabel will have a specific landing page containing detailed manufacturer-provided information on the ingredients and other attributes of a product. All the SmartLabel landing pages will be organized in a similar format, with a consistent look.
Consumers will be able to access the product information in several ways: by scanning a QR code on the package, using a web search, going to a participating company’s website or, eventually, through an app. “Consumers want to know more about their food, such as where it came from and what went into making it,” says J.P. Bilbrey, chairman, president and CEO of The Hershey Company. “SmartLabel creates a way for consumers to get unprecedented access to information about what is in their food. This is what real food transparency is about."
But some people don’t see it this way.
For instance, a number of consumers and special interest groups view the SmartLabel as a way for the food industry to dodge mandatory labeling or alterations to the nutrition facts panel. Specifically, some have called out labels for not revealing whether a product contains genetically modified organisms.
However, consumer concerns go beyond the disclosure of GMOs. Much of the debate stems from the use of QR codes, their relevancy and their effectiveness.
A Nielsen Company survey released earlier this year states 67 percent of North Americans are willing to use QR Codes, though only 12 percent are already using the technology.
Moreover, the Pew Research Center reports 64 percent of Americans own smartphones. This means 36 percent of consumers will be out of luck if they wish to use SmartLabel while shopping. GMA says grocery stores will be willing to help those without smart devices. Even so, if consumers do choose to scan a code at the store, they will reach a webpage that is populated with information chosen by the manufacturer, not federal officials.
In a letter sent to The New York Times, Bailey says that SmartLabel can be used as a means to avoid consumer confusion and the higher costs of state-by-state labeling, writing “this modern solution will give shoppers easy access to information on 350 quality traits ranging from allergens to cage free.”