Consumer Awareness of Genetically Modified Foods May Be Taking Root

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Americans are more aware of genetically modified food than they were six months ago, but confidence in the ability of government regulators to manage these products is mixed, according to a Zogby International poll released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

More than half of poll respondents (55 percent) reported they had heard a ‘great deal' or ‘some' about genetically modified foods sold in grocery stores, with those in the West polling highest (61 percent). The national level of awareness is a notable increase (of 11 percent) from an earlier study conducted for the Initiative by the Mellman Group/Public Opinion Strategies 6 months earlier, when less than half (44 percent) of respondents reported hearing a ‘great deal' or ‘some' about genetically modified foods.

The Zogby poll also revealed that consumers have mixed confidence in the government's ability to manage genetically modified foods, following last fall's recall of products contaminated with Starlink corn -- a type of genetically modified corn approved only for use in animal feed that accidentally made its way into the human food supply. More than half of respondents (52 percent) said they were very or somewhat confident that government regulators can manage genetically modified foods and ensure consumer safety, while 45 percent said they were not too confident or not at all confident in the government.

The most recent poll also suggested that consumers may be more likely to hear about product recalls and generally negative information about genetically modified food than supportive studies. The January poll found that 57 percent of people surveyed had heard about the Starlink recall. In contrast, only a little more than one-third (36 percent) of respondents had heard about the recent Centers for Disease Control report finding no evidence that Starlink corn caused allergic reactions in the 28 cases they had investigated.

“Given the U.S. experience with Starlink product recalls, it is not surprising that some consumers are questioning the government's ability to handle these products even in the absence of any demonstrated harm,” said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. “We must try to learn from Europe, where governments lost credibility in their ability to handle food safety, and work to ensure that our own government agencies are up to the task of appropriately regulating this new, promising technology.”

The poll, released at the Biotechnology Industry Organization 2001 convention during a panel discussion titled “Accepting New Technologies: Media and Public Perceptions of Risks and Benefits,” was part of a nationwide omnibus survey of 1,231 adults nationwide conducted by Zogby International from June 21-23, 2001. The margin of error is +/-3.0 percent.