Time to Modernize and Expand Food Labels with Technology


John P. Bilbrey
Chairman, President and CEO, The Hershey Company


American consumers have developed a voracious appetite for information about the ingredients in their food. They deserve answers to their questions: Did the ingredients come from an organic farm? Do they contain anything that could cause an allergic reaction? What about genetically modified ingredients? Is it kosher? Does it have gluten in it? Up until very recently, most of this information was boiled down to fine print or defined by a symbol on the package – or wasn’t disclosed at all.

The U.S. House of Representatives has an opportunity to pass a bipartisan proposal approved by the U.S. Senate last week that will provide answers to all of these questions.

This legislation represents the best possible solution to a complex issue at a critical juncture, offering consumers more information than they have ever received before – easily accessible at their fingertips.

Time is of the essence because state laws with different rules of the road are starting to take effect, which will only sow confusion and generate unnecessary costs.

The pending legislation avoids an unwieldy situation in which states adopt a patchwork of different standards and requirements. Without a national approach, food companies would be forced to label and segregate products for distribution by state – an incredibly daunting, if not impossible, task that would cause mass confusion. What if two neighboring states like Kansas and Missouri passed different requirements?  Would residents who live in the Kansas City area, which straddles the two states, know and understand that labels are different when shopping across that border?

The Hershey Company has a close and long relationship with consumers, and we understand and respect their appetite for simple, transparent information about what goes into our products, whether it’s about artificial ingredients, GMOs, sourcing or allergens. As a result, we have advocated for policymakers to give the industry clear direction on food labeling requirements that apply throughout the country, and takes advantage of modern technology so ubiquitous in our everyday lives.

Importantly, the pending bipartisan legislation does exactly that: it modernizes and broadens how the industry communicates food information by allowing us to use SmartLabelTM to share this information with the U.S. population.

Hershey, working in close collaboration with the Grocery Manufacturers Association and a dedicated team of leading consumer companies, leveraged existing digital technology to develop this innovative platform, which puts all of this information at consumers’ fingertips, whether on the internet at home or via mobile device while at the store.

Much of the debate about food labeling has centered on GMOs and casts doubts about technology. Regrettably, that overshadows the fact that the consumers we hear from want much more information than that. SmartLabelTM provides transparency about nutritional information. It offers the ability to provide consumers with far more information than is possible on the physical package, which is quite limited – and limiting.  In a clear, unambiguous, easy-to-read format, it denotes third-party certifications such as USDA Organic, dolphin safe, kosher or halal. It also tells them essential information about what food allergens are in the ingredients or if they’re produced on shared equipment or in shared facilities. This last point is especially important because researchers have estimated that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, and it potentially affects one in every 13 children under the age of 18. Think about that for a moment – that’s roughly two children in every classroom, which could make this information potentially a matter of life or death. All of this is accomplished either through a quick scan of a QR code on the package or a few keystrokes at a computer.

Now many on the side who are demanding on-package labeling say that technology leaves a few things to be desired. What they overlook is the fact that 84 percent of Americans use the internet, including 78 percent of African Americans and 81 percent of Hispanics, strong adoption rates for minority communities. Plus, in 2015, there were 228 million smartphones in the hands of American consumers, which equals about 70 percent of the U.S. population. To put food labels in the hands of these users would be one of the fastest rollouts of information to consumers in modern history – just a few finger taps away. There are very few other ways to reach such a wide and diverse audience, let alone quickly.

It’s important to remember that the demand for information is consumer driven and that isn’t going to go away, in fact we expect it will only intensify. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives have a small window of opportunity with the legislation on the table that gives consumers what they want and the direction the food industry needs. This is one of those rare circumstances where everything is aligned: the technology is available, it works, consumers have said they like it and policymakers have a proposal before them that can deliver on it all. There is still time for Congress to get it done this year – and lawmakers must do so to avoid triggering confusion and chaos for consumers and the industry.