The public’s attitude toward genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food is difficult to define, as illustrated by the results of two surveys released today. One found that GMO labels in Vermont lessened consumer fears, while another found that half the American public had human health concerns when shown a bottle of cooking oil with a “BE” label.
BE stands for bioengineered, the word used in the 2016 labeling law that the USDA is charged with implementing. The comment period on USDA’S proposed labeling rule ends July 3.
The Vermont study, led by University of Vermont applied economist Jane Kolodinsky (pictured above), found that opposition to GMO food in the state fell by 19 percent after Vermont required mandatory labels on July 1, 2016. It was the only state labeling law to go into effect and spurred action in Congress to pass a mandatory disclosure bill, which was signed by President Barack Obama July 27, 2016.
The study, published today in Science Advances, is the first to look at how consumers view GMO foods in a state where labels were actually required.
"Our findings put to bed the idea that GMO labels will be seen as a warning label," said Kolodinsky, professor and chair of the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics and a Fellow of University of Vermont's Gund Institute for the Environment. "What we're seeing is that simple disclosures, like the ones implemented in Vermont, are not going to scare people away from these products.”
Put another way, she told Agri-Pulse, “Simple mandatory disclosure does not increase consumer aversion.”
According to the paper, which Kolodinsky co-authored with Jayson Lusk, a well-known agricultural economist at Purdue University:
“This study provides evidence that a simple disclosure, one of the suggestions for the standards being developed at the federal level, is not likely to signal to consumers that (genetically engineered) foods are more risky, unsafe, or otherwise harmful than before label exposure, and might, in fact, do the opposite. This national study cannot identify why this change occurred, but the findings are consistent with previous research suggesting that labels give consumers a sense of control, which has been shown to be related to risk perception.”
USDA’s approach may not be the best one for requiring disclosure, the authors suggest. “Proposed national labeling regulations released by (USDA) in May seek a narrower definition of genetic engineering and propose alternatives to simple labeling disclosures,” a University of Vermont press release says. “The draft guidelines also propose changing the labeling terminology from GMO to ‘bioengineered’ or ‘BE,’ a new descriptor for genetic engineering that is unfamiliar to most of the general public.”
Another survey released today showed that consumers are still worried about GMO foods. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation found that half of consumers had human health concerns when shown a bottle of canola oil with a “BE” plant symbol. That number rose to 51 percent “when text was added to indicate that the product was ‘bioengineered,’ and to 57 percent when ‘may be bioengineered’ was added to the ‘plant’ logo,” IFIC said.
“The survey also asked about broader perceptions of GMOs,” IFIC said. “More than one-third (36 percent) of respondents said they know very little or nothing at all about bioengineered or genetically modified foods, identical to the number who say they know at least a fair amount. Despite the low level of knowledge, a greater number (47 percent) said they avoid GMO foods at least somewhat.”
Asked about the type of disclosure they would prefer, 51 percent of consumers selected “symbol or visual representation” as the top method, followed by “text on a food package” at 29 percent.
“Trailing far behind were sending a text message to receive more information (7 percent), visiting a website (6 percent), calling a phone number (4 percent) and scanning an electronic or digital link (3 percent).”
“The IFIC Foundation’s research into specific disclosure logos and text was limited to those proposed by Agricultural Marketing Service. Clearly this issue is ripe for additional study and education, including qualitative insights that could track actual behavior in the marketplace,” said Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, vice president for research and partnerships at the IFIC Foundation.
Food manufacturers are promoting their SmartLabel program, in which products are affixed with a QR code that consumers can scan for more information. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute launched a campaign earlier this month to inform the public about the program, which now includes more than 28,000 food products.
Roger Lowe, spokesman for the GMA, said his group is finding that people like SmartLabel. "We have all the surveys showing that people want more more information and they like digital access," Lowe said. But so far, consumers have not been aware that they have that option, he said.
"We need to let them know that it's available," Lowe said, pointing out that the federal labeling requirements have yet to go into effect. Once the requirements are in place, "Familiarity with digital disclosure will only grow," he said.
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