Labels proposed by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to disclose “bioengineered” (BE) foods dramatically increase a wide variety of consumer concerns, especially regarding human health.
Those are among the findings of new research by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation into areas where AMS sought comments on its proposed BE labeling standards, as well as consumers’ views generally of genetically modified foods, or GMOs.
Concerns arise when BE foods are labeled
With AMS’s July 3 deadline to comment on the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law fast approaching, the IFIC Foundation tested reactions to the three BE labeling symbols and two variations of text disclosures.
In every combination, levels of concern across a variety of factors increased—often substantially—when a disclosure label was applied.
For example, consumers were shown bottles of canola oil 1) without any BE logo or text, 2) with one of the three symbols (a plant, a sun or a smile), 3) with a symbol, plus “bioengineered” in text and 4) with a symbol, plus “may be bioengineered” in text. An additional group of consumers were shown just text disclosure, without any BE logo.
When shown the bottle without any disclosure, approximately one-third (31 percent) of a group of respondents had human health concerns. But that rose to 50 percent when shown the BE “plant” symbol, further increasing 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.
Human health concerns almost always showed the greatest increase, compared to other factors such as animal health or environmental concerns.
The survey also asked about broader perceptions of GMOs. 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
The vast majority (85 percent) of those who avoid GMOs do so out of human health concerns, with the environment (43 percent), animal health (36 percent) and agriculture/farming (34 percent) concerns trailing far behind.
“Despite broad scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to consume, a majority of Americans seem to be convinced otherwise. It’s a significant disconnect and it underscores the need for more creative public education on the science behind our food,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation.
What Is the right amount of disclosure?
When consumers were asked which combination of logo and text provided the “right amount” of information, a significant majority said that any of the three logo disclosures plus the text disclosure provided the right amount. Far fewer said that the logos alone provided the right amount.
Consumers were also asked how they preferred to receive the legally required GMO disclosure information from food companies on GMOs, ranking their choices among six methods. “Symbol or visual representation” was selected as the top method by 51 percent, 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).
Various label claims can impact consumer purchases
The survey also seeks to understand how statements about GMOs, or GMO-free claims, stack up against other front-of-pack labels. Several claims rank higher than GMO-free claims.
In fact, when given a list to choose from, the top labeling claims consumers seek out when buying food are:
• All Natural, 100 percent Natural or Natural (71 percent when purchasing for themselves, 72 percent for their families)
• Raised without antibiotics (71 percent for themselves, 72 percent for their families)
• Sustainable (62 percent when purchasing for themselves, 63 percent for their families)
• Locally sourced (61 percent when purchasing for themselves, 63 percent for their families)
• USDA Certified Organic (60 percent for both themselves and their families)
GMO-free claims including “Not Made with Genetically Modified Ingredients” and “Non-GMO Project Verified” were important to more than 55 percent of consumers each, significantly below any type of natural claim, as well as several others.
However, the presence of a bioengineered logo reduces what consumers would be willing to pay for a product versus one without a logo.
For instance, respondents indicated they would be willing to pay an average of $2.96 for a container of squash soup with no BE disclosure. But the tolerated price falls when various BE symbols are applied.
Consistent with labeling claims sought by consumers, however, the tolerated price actually rises much closer to that of the unlabeled product if “all natural” or “sustainable” is added to a package alongside the BE symbols.
In one case, the tolerated price with a BE disclosure and “all natural” is in fact equal to the product with no BE disclosure.
“Even though consumers have very individualized beliefs about the meaning of many front-of-package claims, it’s clear that ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ are powerful motivators for certain consumers,” said Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, Vice President, Research and Partnerships at the IFIC Foundation.
“The IFIC Foundation’s research into specific disclosure logos and text was limited to those proposed by AMS. Clearly this issue is ripe for additional study and education, including qualitative insights that could track actual behavior in the marketplace,” Lewin-Zwerdling said.
The findings were derived from an online survey of 1,002 Americans ages 18–80 with sole or shared responsibility for their household’s grocery shopping.
It was conducted May 18 to 27, 2018, using ResearchNow’s consumer panel. Results were represented and distributed across region, gender, age, education, race/ethnicity and household income.
The mission of International Food Information Council Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is to effectively communicate science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good.
The IFIC Foundation is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. Visit http://www.foodinsight.org.