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Are QR codes a food labelling problem or solution?

QR codes are coming back to product labels, but not to show consumers commercials or unlock promotions. These codes serve a more practical, functional purpose ie improving transparency and expanding manufacturer-consumer communication.

As of a few years ago, use of QR codes for marketing purposes skyrocketed, including a 4000% increase in usage from 2011 to 2012.

However, that fast-paced adoption led to a quick drop off from consumers, who soon began ignoring the white and black pixelated boxes as QR codes lost their early luster and excitement.

By 2013, marketing experts called QR codes “dead, trampled by easier-to-use apps”.

Nowadays, QR codes are coming back to product labels, but not to show consumers commercials or unlock promotions. These codes serve a more practical, functional purpose: Improving industry transparency and expanding manufacturer-consumer communication beyond the information that can fit on a product label’s limited real estate.

Two big US food industry initiatives, SmartLabel and potentially GMO labelling, rely on QR codes to deliver important product information to the consumer.

The question now is whether consumers will make good use of QR codes to learn more about food and beverage products. The answer may depend on how manufacturers can show that QR codes add value to their conversations with consumers, well beyond GMO labelling.

The great QR code debate

After Congress passed the GMO labeling bill enabling manufacturers to use QR codes last month, a vocal group of consumers and public health advocates sent petitions to the White House demanding the president veto the bill. However, Politico deemed the petition “too little too late,” and the president signed the bill into law on July 29.

Opponents argue that forcing consumers to scan QR codes for product information discriminates against certain demographics, particularly low-income, elderly and rural Americans. Many in these demographics do not own smartphones, cannot always afford service, or may not understand how to use QR codes, opponents said.

However, Jim Flannery, senior executive vice president of operations and industry affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and lead on the SmartLabel initiative, calls the attacks on QR codes “misguided”.

“(SmartLabel) is easy to use, and I think the difference is that SmartLabel is going to provide the information consumers want,” Flannery told Food Dive.

According to Pew Research Center, 68% of US adults owned a smartphone in 2015, a 35% increase since 2011. For adults ages 18 to 29, the smartphone adoption rate was 86%. But that rate dropped for older generations, including 58% for US adults ages 50 to 64 and 30% for those 65 and over.

A 2014 ExactTarget report on consumers’ mobile behaviour found that 34% of US consumers had scanned a QR code while shopping. Data from Scanbuy indicated that QR code scans per person rose 7.5% on average from 2014 to 2015.

“Honestly, I think those concerns are primarily coming from politicians and activists and not so much from consumers,” Deb Arcoleo, Hershey’s director of product transparency, told Food Dive.

“…There are highly energised advocates on both sides. That probably doesn’t reflect the attitudes and opinion of the majority of consumers.”

Hershey performed qualitative research while planning an early prototype for SmartLabel. They asked test groups about QR codes and whether they would access food information by scanning a code on a product’s package.

“They said, ‘This is really valuable information, and if I have to scan a QR code to get there, that’s cool. Normally when I scan a QR code I get a marketing message or a video or a recipe, nothing that’s really interesting to me. This is really great,'” said Arcoleo. “We did not have consumers tell us that that was a huge barrier.”

Are QR codes a preferred method for accessing food information?

The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) published research reports from the past two years that found the preferred use of QR codes to access food information hovered around 8% to 9% of consumers.

That’s compared to on-package statements or company or third-party websites, which consumers overwhelmingly preferred.

A majority of consumers like on-package statements for information on food safety and impact on health. Most wanted websites for information on animal well being, business ethics, or labour and human rights issues.

“When we did qualitative work, how consumers want to access information is almost as diverse as the number of consumers, which creates both an opportunity and a challenge,” Charlie Arnot, CEO of The Center for Food Integrity, told Food Dive.

“… Regardless of what method a company chooses, it won’t be right for everybody… The key here is that there’s a fundamental commitment to embrace consumers’ right to know, and then to continue to explore what’s the best way to get information to consumers.”

However, the perception of QR codes could change. Or other innovations could replace QR codes and other technologies commonly used today.

“We’re going to see that evolve over time,” said Arnot. “I would be shocked if five years from today that we were talking about the same kind of technology that consumers were using to access information.”….

FoodDive.com: Read the full article

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