Elizabeth L. Petrun is IFIC’s 2012 Sylvia Rowe Fellow. She plans to graduate from the University of Kentucky in May 2013 with her PhD in communication and a cognate in public health. Her research interest areas encompass risk and crisis communication, public relations, new media, and science communication.
Elizabeth has been recognized for her research, teaching, and community involvement in Lexington, Kentucky.
In the past year, media coverage of biotechnology and sustainability initiatives has increased as modern food production strategies continue to develop and improve. In the newly released International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey, “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology & Sustainability” (http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=2012ConsumerPerceptionsofTechnologySurvey), conducted this year, we found that similar to our 2010 survey, Americans remain open to learning about the benefits of biotech foods.
This year’s survey found that perceptions of food technology have remained steady despite increased coverage of food technology and modern food production issues. Most consumers are favorable toward benefits yielded by both plant and animal biotechnology, especially when they convey explicit benefits to the individual and/or the environment.
Additionally, awareness of the benefits of biotech foods continues to be linked with overall favorability. When consumers are provided with the latest information regarding the positive outcomes of biotechnology, they are more likely to hold positive positions on biotech foods.
By exploring these issues, as well as general perceptions of food safety and labeling issues, IFIC continues to track awareness and perceptions of food technology and reveal consumers’ concerns and gaps in understanding. Measuring shifting perceptions over time and identifying benefits of food technology that resonate with consumers provides important insight when it comes to the future of biotech foods.
Generally speaking, 69% of consumers indicate they are either somewhat or very confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. This has remained consistent since 2008.
The survey findings also indicate that consumers may have “maxed out” on food label information. Seventy-six percent indicated that they are satisfied with current information listed on food labels. Of those who desired more information (24%), only 3% indicated they wanted to see information about biotechnology, which is less than 1% of the total sample. Thirty-six percent responded that they would like to see more nutritional information on food labels and 19% want more detailed information on ingredients.
The interest from consumers in these aspects of food labeling could be linked to frequent discussion on obesity and food safety issues (as well as questions on how food is produced and where it comes from). Overall support for FDA’s current labeling policy for biotech foods remains high (66% – 2012, 63% – 2010), which reflects the general confidence in the U.S. food regulatory system.
When asked about biotechnology specifically, most consumers note that they have read or heard at least a little about biotech practices. Thirty-eight percent of Americans hold favorable attitudes towards plant biotechnology, a 6% increase from 2010. Fifty-seven percent of respondents also report that they know at least “a little” about animal biotechnology. Thirty-three percent of Americans listed themselves as being “very favorable” (10%) or “somewhat favorable” (23%) to animal biotech. Among respondents who indicated that they were “not favorable” (i.e. somewhat or very unfavorable, or neutral) (n=381), 55% reported it was because they “don’t have enough information” and 42% indicated that they “don’t understand the benefits of using biotechnology with animals.”
When questioned if they would buy food that has been enhanced through biotechnology if it tasted “better” or “fresher,” 69% indicated they would be “somewhat” or “very” likely to do so. Further, when asked how likely they would be to purchase a food product made with oils that had been modified by biotechnology to provide health benefits (for example, to contain healthful fats such as Omega-3s), 71% of respondents reported that they would be either “somewhat” or “very” likely. This remains consistent with the 2010 survey, which discovered that a majority of Americans are more likely to purchase biotech foods when informed of the specific benefits of the technology.
These findings offer compelling evidence that education and science-based information, framed and delivered in consumer-friendly terms, can lead to a more informed public. When consumers understand how and why biotechnology is used, they are more likely to accept biotech foods.
The 2012 survey also performed a pulse check on consumers’ awareness of sustainability in food production. This year’s study revealed that 55% of respondents have read or heard at least “a little” about sustainability. Conversely, participants claiming they have read or heard “nothing at all” diminished from 50% in 2010 to 44%. Data show that the two most important sustainability outcomes for consumers remain “Ensuring a sufficient food supply for the growing global population” (32%) and conserving the natural habitat, (35%) (for example; water, land, rainforests, etc.) . Given that most consumers (69%) say it is important that their food is produced in a sustainable way, providing information regarding the benefits of food technology for improving sustainability could create an opportunity for positive communication on this topic.
Based on these data, several recommendations can be derived to inform future messaging surrounding biotech foods. First, practitioners and others tasked with communicating information to consumers about biotechnology should attempt to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty. We cannot “favor” or “disapprove” something we know little about, so apart from merely increasing awareness about biotechnology, communicators must acknowledge and crystalize biotechnology’s benefits. When consumers understand the positive outcomes of biotechnology they will make more informed decisions in buying and consuming food and beverage products. Linking the term “biotechnology” with food in a market that has embraced the term “organic” as synonymous with “good” can be daunting, but providing accurate and science-based messaging to consumers most often results in positive and favorable impressions of biotech foods.
When engaging in communication surrounding biotechnology, practitioners should remember to:
1. Communicate certainty. Provide consumers with tangible examples about sustainability and positive outcomes of foods produced through biotechnology (better taste, nutrition, etc.).
2. Know your audience. Certain portions of the population may be more apprehensive about biotechnology. Communicators should target messaging to consumers who hold misperceptions or lack awareness regarding biotechnology. Also, ensure that your message is timely and relevant.
3. Generate trust. Acknowledge concerns and address legitimate food safety issues, remembering to put them in the proper context. It is also important to explain that biotech foods undergo safety testing, must meet the same FDA and USDA standards that all foods must meet and are subject to approval before they enter the food supply.
4. Be specific and speak their language. Avoid generalizations when discussing biotechnology. Highly technical and scientific topics don’t translate well to broad audiences. Use examples to highlight points, discuss the topic in a way that will be understandable, and always relate communication back to the audience.
About the Survey: Independent research firm Cogent Research of Cambridge, Massachusetts fielded the 2012 Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey from March 7-19, 2012. The data collected were weighted on gender, age, race, education, marital status, religion, and income to be nationally representative. The online survey collected input from 750 adults aged 18 and older. This survey, formerly known as the “IFIC Survey of Consumer Attitudinal Trends toward Food Biotechnology,” has been conducted since 1997.
For more information about the “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology and Sustainability” survey, visit:
For more information about food biotechnology and sustainability, visit:
Questions and Answers about Food Biotechnology
National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Biotechnology Page
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Plant Biotechnology for Food and Feed
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture: Information Access Tools