Poll shows broad but limited support for labeling of bioengineered foods

Many people would reject foods labeled “genetically engineered”

WASHINGTON - A new in-depth survey has found broad consumer support for the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, but only a modest percentage of respondents indicated a strong desire for such labeling. The national poll also found that three out of ten consumers would perceive GE-labeled foods to be less safe than conventional foods.

CSPI’s survey shows that many consumers would like labels to provide information about how foods were produced. About-thirds (62%-70%) wanted GE foods to be labeled. Even more people, 76%, wanted labeling of foods made from crops sprayed with pesticides. The survey also found that 53% of respondents wanted labels to disclose if farmers used practices that caused soil erosion, and 40% wanted labels on foods that contained cross-bred (hybrid) corn.

Although two-thirds of those polled supported labeling of GE foods, a smaller percentage of those people feel strongly about such labeling. Half the people who said they wanted GE labeling also said they would pay nothing or just $10 per year for that labeling. (Segregating GE from non-GE crops likely would increase costs.) Also, there was considerably less support for labeling if only a minor ingredient in a food came from a GE crop.

A small core of people strongly favored GE labeling. Seventeen percent chose genetic engineering out of four possible choices as their top priority for labeling. In contrast, 31% chose use of pesticides. About 12% of those surveyed said they would pay $250 or more per year for labeling.

The CSPI survey found that labels stating “GE” or “non-GE” would influence many consumers’ perceptions and preferences. About 31% of consumers said that products labeled GE were not as safe as non-GE foods. A similar percentage said that foods labeled “does not contain genetically engineered ingredients” were better than unlabeled foods. Only about 10% said that the GE-labeled product was safer or better. (33% to 42% said that GE and non-GE foods were just as safe or good).

Perhaps most importantly, only about 40% of those polled said they would buy foods made with engineered ingredients. But the poll also found that only about the same percentage would buy foods with labels disclosing that they contained cross-bred corn, which Americans have been eating for decades.

When asked to choose between two otherwise identical foods but where one is labeled that it contains and the other that it does not contain GE ingredients, 52% of consumers said they would choose the non-GE food, whereas only 7% would choose the GE labeled food (37% did not care which food they bought).

Most scientists and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agree that currently marketed bioengineered foods are just as safe as other foods. CSPI said that consumer concerns may reflect campaigns decrying “Frankenfoods,” caution concerning unfamiliar new processes, and industry’s failure to convince the public that its new technology is safe and beneficial.

“While CSPI’s and previous polls show broad support for labeling of GE foods, we have found that that support comes with a lot of caveats,” said Greg Jaffe, co-director of CSPI’s project on biotechnology. “That points to the need to proceed with caution.

“Those of us who favor labeling of engineered foods will have to work hard to design a system that will not only be accurate, but also non-disparaging and value-free,” added Jaffe. “Many consumers would interpret GE food labels as casting doubt on the safety of foods even though, to date, scientists have found no problems. A GE label should not be seen as a black mark, especially when GE crops appear to be having such environmental benefits as reduced use of chemical pesticides and likely reduced soil erosion.”

“One important way to increase confidence in engineered foods,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, the other co-director of CSPI’s biotechnology project, “would be for the FDA to establish an approval process to verify that every engineered food is safe before it is marketed.”

CSPI will be submitting a report summarizing the survey results to the FDA in response to its request for comments about the labeling of bioengineered foods.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) poll of 1,017 nationally representative adults was conducted by Bruskin Research of Edison, New Jersey. The results are accurate to within (+/-) 3%.