Most U.S. consumers still unaware of genetically modified foods

Surveys show American consumers are surprised and even outraged when they learn what pervasive GM foods are.

Studies by the International Food Information Council and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology both found nearly an identical lack of awareness of GM foods among consumers. In the IFIC survey, consumers were asked to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how informed they were about biotechnology with 10 indicating "very well informed." Fifty-three percent rated their awareness at three points or below. The Pew survey found that nearly an identical number of consumers (54%) said they had heard "not much" or "nothing" about biotech foods in grocery stores.

Believed they never consumed GM foods

Similar results were found in a GMO Public Attitudes Survey conducted by the University of New Mexico and Texas A&M. "In general, there is little information about this," says Hank Jenkins-Smith, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and researcher in the two-year study. "Most respondents believed they never consumed GM foods, and if they did they thought the foods would be labeled."

According to Jenkins-Smith, the two universities' study will be published this August. The survey was in-depth, requiring 20 minutes for respondents to answer questions about the GMO issue and involved interviews with 1150 respondents nationwide. The survey was featured on the recent PBS special on GM foods, "Harvest of Fear."

"Our aim was to get a baseline on the GMO debate and understand the underlying dynamics," says Jenkins-Smith. He said some surveys on GMOs are more like "beauty contests" and don't reach the underlying controversy. The survey identified four different sub-groups: people who see the risks of GM foods as substantial, those who see the benefits as substantial, those who see both the risks and benefits as high, and those who see both the risks and benefits as low.

Typical reaction: outrage

When respondents were told how pervasive GM foods are in the U.S., Jenkins-Smith said they were surprised. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered the same results last year when it conducted 12 focus groups with consumers in four U.S. cities. When informed about how many foods contain GM ingredients, the most typical reaction among consumers was outrage that such a change in the food supply occurred without their knowledge. Some participants interpreted not informing the public as meaning "there is something to hide." Not informing consumers about GM foods makes them suspicious, according to Jenkins-Smith. "You will inflame consumer concerns if you feel like you're hiding it," he says.

Guy Whiten, Texas A&M professor of political science and collaborator in the GMO Public Attitudes Survey, says the way the public reacts to the extent of GM foods in the food supply could dictate the future of GM crops.

Labeling: potentially explosive

Along the same lines, Jenkins-Smith says the issue of labeling GM foods is "potentially explosive." Americans are known for taking risks, but problems arise when they feel the risks are placed on them without their choice. "People want the choice. We don't mind taking the risks, but we want to be the ones who choose," says Jenkins-Smith. Surprisingly, his survey found that, while most respondents favored labeling of GM foods, they said they would feel more comfortable using the product if it was labeled. This runs counter to conventional wisdom among the biotech industry and anti-labeling proponents who say labels on GM foods would scare consumers off. Other consumer surveys consistently show U.S. consumers favor labeling. Even IFIC, which favors food biotechnology, found that 58% of respondents agreed with GM food critics, who say the foods should be labeled. IFIC found this response surprising. The Pew survey found that 75% of Americans said it was important for them to know whether a food contained GM ingredients and nearly half, 46%, said it was very important for them to know. FDA's focus groups also favored labeling. Jenkins-Smith predicts the labeling issue will continue to grow in the U.S. "We're going to hear more news about this. It is going to more of a front burner question," he says.

Other consumer trends

  • The Natural Marketing Institute found that 47% of consumers surveyed are concerned about GM foods, an 18% increase over a similar study conducted the previous year. The same survey found that 20% of respondents said it was extremely important for stores to have non-GMO products and another 27% said it was somewhat important, which is significant for non-GMO product makers. (Source: The GMO/BiotechTrends Report © The Natural Marketing Institute, 2000)A study conducted by Janet Masci of Environics International found that 20% of people in countries surveyed (Canada, China, Great Britain, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, U.S.) say they will change their buying habits to avoid foods labeled GM. (Source: AgBiotech Bulletin)
  • In Quebec, a survey of 1,000 people in February conducted for Quebec Science and Protegez-Vous magazines by Leger Marketing found that more than 75% of Quebecers would rather pay extra for organic food than buy GM foods at lower prices. (Source: The Gazette - Montreal)
(July 2001)