By Katherine Olender, MPH MS candidate and 2014 IFIC Foundation Sylvia Rowe Fellow
It seems that now, more than ever, Americans are paying attention to what they eat. Whether for health, lifestyle, or economic reasons, many Americans carefully consider the source and production processes of their food choices.
According to the International Food Information Council Foundation 2014 Food and Health Survey, 70 percent consider production processes and 26 percent consider the source of their food when making food purchasing decisions. For some consumers, use of biotechnology (also sometimes referred to inaccurately as genetic modification or “GMOs,” or accurately as genetic engineering) is one of the considerations when choosing foods. Public dialogue on food biotechnology is often portrayed negatively. Yet, the newly released 2014 International Food Information Council survey, Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology, shows consumers continue to be generally positive about the use of biotechnology in food production when provided with information on its uses and benefits.
While this most recent survey (conducted with 1,000 U.S. adult consumers using an online survey tool) does indicate a decrease in favorability toward some aspects of food biotechnology than in previous years, the shift is only slight. Further, when consumers consider the health and environmental benefits biotechnology can offer, they are overwhelmingly favorable, indicating that accurate and complete information is important to helping consumers make informed food choices. The following are the key takeaways from this year’s Survey:
Consumers are Receiving Mixed Messages on Biotechnology – Consistent with previous years, most Americans have heard about biotechnology, with one in ten having heard or read “a lot” and 60 percent “a little or some.” Just over one-quarter (28 percent) of Americans are favorable toward plant biotechnology. This is a significant drop since 2012, when 37 percent were favorable. Yet, the percentage of those with favorable views in 2014 is consistent with both 2010 and 2008, indicating that the 2012 jump in favorability may have been an anomaly.
Additionally, 29 percent are unfavorable towards biotechnology, higher compared to previous years (20 percent in 2012). Interestingly, close to half (43 percent) of consumers do not have an opinion about plant biotechnology. These consumers report feeling neutral or not having enough information. Consumers report hearing a mix of positive and negative messages on the topic, which may be leading to confusion.
Consumers are Likely to Purchase Foods Produced Using Biotechnology for Health/Environmental Benefits – An overwhelming majority of Americans are favorable towards biotechnology that benefits their health or the environment. Seventy-two percent would purchase foods that provide more healthful fats and 69 percent would purchase foods that would reduce the potential for carcinogens. About two-thirds would purchase foods modified to eliminate trans fats or to improve their vitamin content.
The environmental benefits are equally appealing. Seven in ten consumers report they would both purchase foods modified to require fewer pesticide applications and use less land, water, and/or pesticides.
“When consumers understand the potential benefits that technology in food production can have for both people and the planet, they can get behind it. People need to know what’s in it for them,” said Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RD, LD, FADA, FAND, Senior Vice President of Nutrition and Food Safety at IFIC.
Some Consumers Desire Labels, but Rarely for Genetically Engineered Foods – Consumers continue to be satisfied with the information currently on food labels, suggesting that efforts to label foods produced using biotechnology are driven by only a small portion of the population (Other surveys finding a high percentage supporting labeling are often “push” polls designed to elicit a positive response).
Consistent with 2012, three-quarters (74 percent) of consumers cannot think of any additional information they would like to see on food labels. Of those who want more information on the label, a desire for more nutrition information and general ingredient information continue to top consumers’ wish lists, at eight percent and five percent. Only four percent of consumers want information about biotechnology or related terms. Though this desire for biotechnology labeling is very low, it has increased since 2012 (See Table 1). This indicates that although labeling continues to make headlines, consumers still place more value on other aspects of their food.
Table 1: Interest in adding information to current food labels (2014 IFIC Food Technology Survey
The majority of Americans (63 percent) continue to support the current FDA policy for labeling foods produced through biotechnology, which calls for labeling only when biotechnology substantially changes the food’s nutritional content or composition, or when a potential safety issue (such as a food allergen) is identified. There is only a small decline in support for the current FDA labeling policy, with 19 percent who oppose the policy (14 percent in 2012).
“Years of legislation, ballot measures, and mischaracterization of food biotechnology have not affected overall support of FDA’s biotech labeling policy,” said IFIC President and CEO David Schmidt. “However, they have likely played a role in the modest increase we’re seeing in those who oppose it.”
High Confidence in Food Safety an Indicator for Perceptions of Biotechnology – An overwhelming 67 percent of American consumers report confidence in the safety of the US food supply, consistent since 2008. While more consumers in 2014 (14 percent) report lacking confidence in the U.S. food supply than in 2012 (10 percent), this number is still low. Eighteen percent of consumers rank both disease/contamination and food handling/preparation as their top food safety concerns. Just seven percent mentioned biotechnology, although an increase from two percent in 2012.
Consumers are More Aware of GE Foods in the Grocery Store – More Americans than ever are aware that genetically engineered foods are available in supermarkets: 37 percent of consumers (up from 30 percent in 2012 and 23 percent in 2008), say such foods are available. Of those consumers (n=380), half or more correctly identify the following genetically engineered foods available in the grocery store: corn products (69 percent), (some) vegetables (68 percent), (some) fruits (62 percent), (some) cereals and grains (57 percent), soy (50 percent), and (some) milk and dairy (48 percent). However, many respondents incorrectly selected genetically engineered meats (51 percent), poultry (49 percent), eggs (41 percent), breads and crackers (40 percent), and fish (33 percent) as foods currently available in supermarkets.
This indicates that while awareness of genetically engineered foods is growing, there is still a degree of confusion about currently available foods produced using biotechnology. Credible organizations such as government agencies (FDA, USDA) and scientific societies offer this information in many forms, including on their websites and social media channels.
Consumers Value (but Don’t Want to Pay More for) Sustainable Foods – While two-thirds of Americans say it is important that their foods are produced sustainably, fewer are willing to pay more for it. Twenty-six percent, down from 33 percent in 2012, would pay more for sustainable food and beverage products. This may be partially due to increases in food prices faced by consumers in recent years (The 2014 Food & Health Survey shows consumers rank price as more important than sustainability when making food and beverage decisions).
Millennials and Moms Differ in their Perceptions of Biotechnology & Sustainability – For the first time, the survey examined specific insights of “Millennials” and “Moms,” whose unique values offer a lens through which to cultivate positive dialogue on the benefits of biotechnology. Moms are twice as likely (18 percent) to have heard “a lot” about biotechnology, compared to non-moms (9 percent), and both Moms and Millennials tend to favor some aspects of biotechnology more than other consumers. Seventy-seven percent of moms are likely to purchase foods made with oils that had been modified by biotechnology to eliminate the trans fat content in the food, compared to 64 percent of non-moms. In addition, 40 percent of Millennials (aged 18-34) are favorable toward plant biotechnology, compared to about 25 percent of the rest of the population.
Table 2: Millennials – Importance of Sustainability, 2014 IFIC Food Technology Survey
Both groups also place greater value on sustainable food production practices than other consumer groups. Three-quarters (76 percent) of Millennials agree is important that the foods they purchase or consume are produced using sustainable practices, compared to 62 percent of the rest of the population and more than one-third of moms and close to half of Millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable foods, much higher than other consumers.
Opportunities for More Dialogue – The results of the 2014 survey highlights opportunities to better understand and address consumer questions and concerns about biotechnology.
- Information should come from “trusted sources.” Consumers trust health organizations (50 percent), government agencies (45 percent), and health professionals (45 percent) most for information on biotechnology. Journalists, bloggers, and celebrities are at the bottom of the list of trusted sources, at nine, seven, and five percent, respectively. Trusted sources have credibility that will resonate with consumers and can respond to consumers’ questions, opinions, and thoughts about biotechnology.
- Communicate the benefits of biotechnology.
Consumers value health and the environment, and are more favorable to biotechnology when discussed in the context of these values.
- Focus on sustainability with Millennials and Moms. Millennials and Moms are significantly more interested in sustainably produced foods than other demographics. Communicate how biotechnology supports sustainable practices to bolster support among these key demographics.
- Don’t forget Millennials. Millennials’ current attitudes and values, as well as their use of technology and social media to actively engage in food conversations, make them perfectly poised to embrace biotechnology
- Listen: Listening leads to effective dialogue, and dialogue builds trust. It is essential that we listen to consumers in order to appropriately consider and respond to concerns, answer questions, and provide accurate information about biotechnology.
The 2014 IFIC Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey resources, including the Executive Summary, Topline Summary, and slide presentation
can be found here.
About the Survey: Independent research firm Market Strategies International of Livonia, Michigan conducted the 2014 IFIC Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey from March 28 – April 7, 2014. Data were weighted on gender, age, race, education, marital status, region, and income to be nationally reflective. The online survey collected data from 1,000 U.S. adults aged 18 and older. Statistical significance was determined at the 95 percent confidence level, and the margin of error is +/-3 percent for the total sample, and +/-7 percent for the smaller moms/Millennials sample. This Survey, formerly known as the “IFIC Survey of Consumer Attitudinal Trends toward Food Biotechnology,” has been conducted since 1997.
For more information about food biotechnology, view the following resources:
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
Biotechnology: Genetically Engineered Plants for Food and Feed
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
Questions and Answers: Biotechnology and the USDA