Recent study shows consumers support biotechnology

May 25, 2012

If you’ve been depressed lately over consumers’ apparent rejection of modern production practices, this might liven your spirits.

May 10, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) released the results of their most recent “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technol ogy

and Sustainability” survey. The results show American consumers are generally supportive of the use of biotechnology in food production and support current labeling requirements.

The report also showed most issues modern food production practices face from consumers stem from a lack of knowledge rather than active negative opinions. This suggests ample room for improvement in communication between consumers and those involved with food production.

The report indicates the majority (69 percent) of U.S. consumers are confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. When it comes to opinions of biotechnology, there were a number of responses with most results largely favorable.

Thirty-five percent of respondents foresee benefits from the use of biotechnology (vs. 20 percent who did not) in areas such as improved nutrition, quality, crop production and food safety. In terms of farmers and ranchers using biotech to meet the growing food demands of the world— something consumers see being farmers’ and ranchers’ primary responsibility—49 percent (vs. 15 percent) were in favor of its use.

In the realm of animalbased food production, half of respondents were actively in favor of the use of genomics in livestock breeding (vs.

15 percent against) and 44 percent were actively in favor of genetic engineering of livestock (vs. 23 percent opposed). All topics were defined prior to the survey questions based on them. Percentages which are here unreported were composed of “do not know,” “neutral” or simply empty responses.

When consumers were presented with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current labeling policy for foods produced using biotechnology, which calls for labeling only when the food’s nutritional content or its composition is changed, or when a potential safety issue is identified, 66 percent of respondents indicated their support for the policy.

A quarter of respondents indicated they would like to see more information on food labels. Of those who wanted more information, 36 percent wanted more nutritional information, 19 percent wanted more ingredient detail, and 18 percent wanted more food safety information. Desire for biotech labeling, such as information on genetically-modified ingredients, was only cited by 3 percent of that quarter of overall respondents. This means less than 1 percent of respondents desired more biotech labeling on food.

The topic of sustainability was a relatively new issue addressed by the survey. It was added in 2010 and expanded in the 2012 survey due to the responses of past surveys.

In 2010, half of respondents reported interest and knowledge of sustainability as a food issue. In 2012, that number grew to 56 percent. Sixty-nine percent of 2012 respondents said that it is important to them to eat food produced “sustainably.”

The varying definition of the concept of “sustainability”— something which can and frequently has caused issues in the public dialog regarding food production— was addressed by the survey. Thirty-five percent of respondents ranked “conserving the natural habitat” as the first or second most important element of the sustainability concept. “Ensuring a sufficient food supply” was a close second with 32 percent of respondents ranking it first or second in importance.

What this means for beef

Despite these supporting results, lack of information among consumers about biotechnology in food production was high and frequent. Overall, 59 percent of respondents reported not knowing about biotech in foods available in supermarkets today. Added to this admitted lack of knowledge, 11 percent reported their active opinion that no biotech foods are available today.

Among those respondents who reported active unfavorable positions on biotech engineering in foodproduction animals or were neutral on the topic, the top reasons cited were lacking information and being unaware of the possible benefits. This point is particularly important for anyone involved in the beef industry. It suggests a wide open opportunity for consumer education and targeted communication.

In the webcast presentation of the study results, Lindsey Loving, senior director of food ingredients and technology communications at IFIC, commented on farmers and ranchers as being seen as trustworthy sources on biotech by consumers.

“Putting a face to the technology helps to give consumers a better idea of the use and benefits of biotechnology and improves its favorability [with consumers].”

Sarah Romotsky, IFIC manager of food ingredients and technology who also participated in the webcast, pointed out there are several factors which impact consumers’ acceptance of information on biotech.

Consumers’ pre-existing awareness, opinions and perceptions set the stage of receptivity. Who shares the information and how they communicate it also play a big role. According to the report, consumers are more likely to trust medical groups and their own doctors and the government on the issue of biotech safety than they are to trust agricultural groups like farm bureaus or consumer groups. Using proper terminology rather than media-popularized terms also improves consumers’ attitudes on biotech.

The 15th “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology” survey was fielded by Cogent Research of Cambridge, MA. An online survey of 750 U.S. adult volunteers was used. Results were weighted based on sex, age, race, education, region, income and marital status to be nationally representative. The survey is part of a series that has been conducted since 1997. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor