Consumer advocates wary of digitally coded food labels

If nutrition labels require a smartphone app to unlock, will consumers read them?

That is the debate dividing healthy-food advocates and some food manufacturers that intend to use so-called QR codes in part to comply with new federal label requirements.

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The law, signed last week by President Barack Obama, obliges food companies to flag genetically modified ingredients with plain writing, an icon developed by regulators, or digitally readable symbols known as a QR code. The law lets companies make GMO disclosures using only QR codes and not words—something the food industry supported.

Short for quick-response code, the digital symbols provide product information to smartphone users who scan them with a dedicated app. That cumbersome process has drawn criticism from healthy food advocates who want ingredients derived from biotech crops flagged as explicitly as possible.

“It is my hope that food corporations reject high-tech gimmicks like QR codes,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the Just Label It advocacy group and Stonyfield Farm, an organic yogurt maker.

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