What if you could disclose GMOs without visibly altering your packaging?

January 24, 2019

Digital watermarking technology is an approved GMO disclosure method. How does it work?

Digimarc Corporation (Beaverton, OR) has announced that its Digimarc Barcode, using Digimarc’s proprietary Intuitive Computing Platform, has been approved by USDA as a digital disclosure method for products containing bioengineered food under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The final rule was published by USDA on December 21, 2018 as required by an amendment to the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 that was passed on July 29, 2016, requiring companies to disclose the presence of GMOs on packaging of food products.

Digimarc Barcodes are a digital watermarking technology used on packaging that is imperceptible to consumers. USDA’s National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard allows for digital disclosure methods such as QR codes and “digital watermark technology that is imperceptible to consumers but can be scanned anywhere on a food package using a smart phone or other device.” Other disclosure options include written text or a symbol that consumers would find by the nutritional facts panel of a food product.

The advantage of the digital watermark technology is that companies can work it into their existing product labels with minimal visual disruption. “What we’re doing is creating a connected package. We do this by taking the existing artwork [of a company’s packaging or label] and then we slightly modulate the pixels that make up the design of the artwork, and in so doing create a symbol which is pretty much visually imperceptible to consumers, but computing devices, ranging from smart phones, front-of-store scanners, machine vision, and computing devices with a camera, can discover that code,” explains Larry Logan, chief evangelist at Digimarc, to Nutritional Outlook.

This scannable symbol repeats across the entire package, making the whole package scannable, rather than relying on a structural code such as a UPC barcode or QR code. This has practical applications such as faster scanning at checkout, but is also used for transparency initiatives such as SmartLabel, a program developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute to provide consumers detailed information about a product that would not fit on the packaging.

Digital disclosure methods have come under fire from GMO-labeling advocates as a way around explicitly stating the presence of GMOs in a product, and for discriminating against those who do not have access to smart phone technology or a reliable broadband connection required to read digital watermark technology, QR codes, etc.

Addressing the criticisms, Logan does acknowledge that because it is a new technology there will be an initial reliance on call-to-actions located on labels and other places, such as shelf-talkers in stores to encourage consumers to scan the products, but over time, he says, scanning products will become more intuitive. Products are also required to carry an 1-800 phone number that will disclose GMOs, though the information provided by a Digimarc Barcode is much more detailed, says Logan.

“Unlike a phone number, we’re able to link to more information than would ever be in a phone call,” he explains. “Because of what we call dynamic updating, even though the code is fixed, it will always provide the latest information. It’s a more flexible and scalable system and ensures that consumers always get the most up-to-date information.”

Changes to ingredient sourcing, for example, can be easily updated. To connected consumers, the Digimarc Barcode can be a great resource for not only relevant product information through SmartLabel, such as the presence of allergens and GMOs, but also for recipes, and it could be a marketing tool for brands. For those who do not have smartphone technology on hand, Digimarc has collaborated with Aila Technology to support scanning of Digimarc Barcodes at their kiosks. Should this digital watermarking technology take off, it’s possible more retailers will incorporate scanning kiosks to accommodate customers.

There is also the potential for greater product safety. For example, Digimarc collaborated with HP to provide Serialized Global Trade Item Number (SGTIN) on packaging to track and protect a package through the supply chain and at point-of-sale (POS) in retail environments. Serialized packaging combats counterfeiting and piracy in the marketplace. This may eventually translate into tracking recalled products and preventing their purchase at the register.

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard is a huge opportunity for Digimarc Barcodes to be utilized more broadly, and with a January 1, 2020, implementation deadline (January 1, 2021, for small food manufacturers) to disclose the presence of GMOs, it’s another option for manufacturers to consider, sooner than later.