Organic Consumers Association

New Poll--94% of Americans Want Labels on GE Foods

From Agribusiness Examiner #295 10/19/03
By Al Krebs <>


LEE BOWMAN, SCRIPPS-HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: Although as much as 80% of processed food in the United States has a component from a genetically
modified crop, a new survey finds that only 26% of Americans think they've
ever eaten such food.

The Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University found that overall knowledge
about both genetically modified foods and food production remains poor,
although a bit better than in 2001.

In genetic modification, genes from a plant or animal are shifted to another
to transfer a desired trait, such as resistance to disease or insects, or
improved shelf life.

Although the federal government does not track how widespread genetically
modified foods have become in store, it has approved scores of modified
crops for planting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 81% of
soybeans planted in the United States this year were modified, along with
73% of cotton and 40% of corn.

The survey of 1,201 adults was funded by the USDA.

About half of the respondents, 52% were aware that genetically modified food
products are in supermarkets, up from 41% who thought so in 2001.

"Americans have no idea that foods with genetically modified ingredients are
already for sale in the U.S.," said William Hallman, lead author of the
study released [October 15] and associate director of the food biotechnology
program at the institute. "But bottom line, if you eat processed foods,
you're probably eating GM ingredients."

Watchdog groups have pressed the federal Food and Drug Administration to
require labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients, contending
they represent a significant change in nutrients, allergens or composition.
But the agency has so far refused to act, saying it has found no significant
differences between genetically modified foods and conventional foods.

Less than one percent of those surveyed volunteered that they would like to
see genetically modified ingredients on food labels. But when asked directly
about such labels, 94% said they thought it would be a good idea.

In fact, food biotechnology just isn't much of a concern for many people.

Eighty percent of respondents said they had never --- or only once or twice
--- discussed genetic modification with anyone, and 77% admitted they knew
little or nothing about it.

When asked directly, 49% said they approved of plant-based genetically
modified foods, down nine percent from a 2001 survey, and 27% said they were
comfortable with animal-based genetically modified foods.

But among those who disapproved of plant-based genetically modified foods,
the willingness to buy such foods increased if they were told the
modification made the items have less fat (30% said they'd buy) or made the
food taste better (24%). But only 12% said they would buy modified foods if
they were cheaper than traditional foods.

"Right now, the major benefits of GM crops are increased yields and reduced
pesticide use," Hallman said. "While that's good news for the farmers and
the environment, most consumers haven't taken much notice."

He expects this will change in the next few years as products that have been
genetically modified to add traits more directly aimed at consumer
satisfaction, such as taste and nutrition, are put on the market.

Still, some misperceptions might have to be overcome first. According to
survey responses to a true-false test on biotechnology:

* 40% of respondents falsely thought that tomatoes genetically modified with
genes from catfish would taste "fishy";

* 52% wrongly thought that genetically modified foods are created using
radiation to create genetic mutations;

* 31% mistakenly believed that eating genetically modified fruit could
modify a person's genes;

* 43% falsely asserted that ordinary tomatoes don't contain genes, only
those that are genetically modified have genes.

However, 76% did know that live yeast is used to make beer.

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