Research Feature . . .
DESPITE INFORMATION SPATE, CONSUMERS STILL IN DARK ABOUT GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS
Many consumers don’t understand what “genetically modified foods” are all about – even people who say they strongly oppose products that are either genetically modified (GM) or contain GM ingredients, a new study suggests.
Researchers used focus groups to gauge consumer reactions to a variety of labels that could be used to describe GM foods or organisms (known as GMOs). Although there are no regulations about labeling such products, debate continues over whether GM foods should indeed be identifiable to the consumer, and how.
“Most of the people agreed that before participating in the study, they wouldn’t have known what a ‘GMO-free’ claim really meant and would have ignored it,” said Brian Roe, a study co-author and an assistant professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University.
“Many participants equated genetic modification techniques with traditional hybridization and crossbreeding practices or with the use of hormones and growth stimulants,” he said.
The lack of knowledge surprised Roe and his colleagues, especially since one of the focus groups contained people with strong negative opinions toward GM foods.
The study appears in a recent issue of the journal AgBioForum.
Roe and his colleagues conducted six focus groups in three U.S. cities: Orono, Maine; Columbus, Ohio; and Phoenix. One of the Orono groups was screened to include only people with strong negative opinions of GM foods.
The 56 participants were asked a series of questions regarding their attitudes, knowledge and beliefs about GM organisms and foods.
Participants were shown an actual advertisement describing a product as “GMO-free,” along with labels displayed on three frozen products – corn, chicken tenders and a pasta-with-vegetable meal. Labels stated whether or not a product contained GM ingredients.
Labels stating the presence of GM ingredients were divided into three categories: neutral statements, indicating just the inclusion of GM ingredients; positive statements, which provided health benefit information; or negative statements, which included the word “warning” or otherwise negative messages, such as “unanticipated allergens may be present.”
The participants were asked whether or not they felt adequately informed by the labels, whether the information was misleading or confusing and how the placement of the information affected their likelihood of reading it.
Current federal regulations mandate that a label is required only if genetic manipulation causes a difference in the chemical composition of the product, Roe said. “However, the Food and Drug Administration has issued suggested guidelines for food manufacturers that want to put such labels on their products.”
Even if labeling were mandatory, most of the participants in this study were skeptical that such labels would accurately convey the absence of such ingredients.
“Interestingly, the people most likely to purchase a food labeled as free of GM ingredients were also the most skeptical about these claims,” Roe said. “And most of the participants felt that ‘GMO-free’ claims were simply a marketing tool.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States and Canada produce 82 percent of the world’s genetically modified foods. Some experts believe that 40 to 60 percent of all of the seeds planted in the United States are genetically modified, and that up to 60 percent of processed foods sold in grocery stores contain at least a trace of GM ingredients.
“The participants in our study were most startled by the large percentage of foods that may already contain GM ingredients,” Roe said. “However, some found the information comforting, since they hadn’t heard or known of anyone getting sick as a result of eating GM food.”
He and his colleagues are continuing their study on consumer opinions, knowledge and reactions to GM foods. They are currently collecting questionnaires from about 3,000 randomly selected people across the continental United States.
Roe conducted the study with colleagues from the University of Maine, Unity College in Unity, Maine, and MACRO International, an information technology firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.