How Consumers Process Information at Heart of Debate Over Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods
One of the most controversial public policy issues surrounding genetically modified (GM) foods is whether food products containing ingredients from GM crops should be labeled so that consumers can make informed purchasing decisions, as consumer groups assert, or whether labels are ill-advised because GM foods are safe and mandatory labels could mislead consumers into believing otherwise, as the food industry argues. These and other related issues were addressed by a group of panelists speaking today at a Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology policy dialogue entitled Labeling Genetically Modified Foods: Communicating or Creating Confusion?
“The labeling debate raises a number of contentious issues about how consumers perceive information,” said Michael Rodemeyer, Executive Director of the Initiative. “Although most polls show consumers in favor of these labels, there are questions as to how useful labels might be and whether they may cause unnecessary fears over products that most scientists have found to be as safe as their conventional counterparts. On the other hand, consumers may believe that the lack of a label indicates food companies are trying to hide something and that they have the right to choose.”
Crops produced through agricultural biotechnology have been widely adopted by farmers throughout the world over the past seven years, and have been particularly popular with American farmers: three quarters of all GM crops in the world now are being planted in this country. In 2001, there were three main biotech crops planted in the U.S.: soybeans (68 percent were genetically modified), cotton (69 percent GM) and corn (26 percent GM). Worldwide, plantings of biotech crops in 2001 totaled 130 million acres--up 19 percent from 2000, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Because these three crops are the source of many ingredients used extensively in processed foods, up to 70 percent of all packaged foods found on supermarket shelves could include genetically modified ingredients, according to some industry estimates. The Food and Drug Administration requires labeling information for a new food variety (including GM foods) only if it differs in a significant way--in its composition, nutrition, or allergenicity, for example--from its conventional counterpart. Activists believe that consumers have a right to know whether their food has been genetically modified, whereas the food industry opposes mandatory labels because the products have been reviewed for safety by the government and they believe that a labeling regime would therefore act as an unwarranted warning, be costly and amount to a tax on consumers (a Canadian study estimated that mandatory labeling would cost that country's consumers $700 million to $950 million annually).
Austin Sullivan, Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations at General Mills. Inc., one of the nation's largest food companies, said, “Manufacturers, who currently receive no benefit or marketing advantage from bio-engineered ingredients, do not want to present their products in a way that is negative to consumers, and especially not in ways that would cause any significant number of consumers to avoid purchasing those products. With no manufacturing or consumer benefit to offer and only downside risk of adverse consumer behavior, mandatory labeling would lead manufacturers to ask their suppliers for non-bioengineered ingredients only. The net result of this would be to eliminate choice and retard the development of a potentially beneficial technology.”
“The argument that labeling will create confusion is simply an attempt by supporters of biotech foods to keep consumers from knowing their foods have been genetically engineered,” said Craig Winters, Executive Director of the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, a political advocacy organization whose mission is to mobilize grassroots lobbying in the United States to get labeling on genetically engineered foods. “Consumers are currently being used as human guinea pigs in this massive feeding experiment. And because there are no labels on genetically engineered foods, people do not even know they are participating in this feeding experiment.”
Gregory Jaffe, Director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an advocacy and educational organization that focuses on nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science, said: “Some consumers want mandatory labeling because they fear GE foods are unsafe to eat. One way to address this concern is not labeling, but mandatory approval of GE crops before they are marketed. Under FDA's current policy, GE crops are not approved before they are marketed. Establishing a mandatory approval process at FDA would lessen consumer concerns about eating unsafe GE foods, greatly reducing calls for labeling for safety reasons. If a GE food cannot be proved safe to eat, it should not be allowed to be marketed, whether or not labeling is required. Industry should listen to consumers and find ways to provide information about GE ingredients in an accurate and value-free manner.”
Professor Jonathan K. Frenzen, Clinical Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, noted: “The risks imposed by GMOs represent a technically complex issue that the American public will never fully understand. GMO labeling places policy-making authority into the hands of consumers as they rush through the aisles of a grocery store, distracted by a myriad of purchasing decisions. In effect, GMO labeling places a decision that deserves careful consideration into an environment characterized by quick decisions and sometimes sloppy thinking. Lacking an independent ability to assess the risks posed by GMOs, the American public will be vulnerable to purely emotional appeals regarding the risks posed by GMOs. Labeling provides a poor process for formulating policy: It will encourage hysterical reaction and discourage thoughtful deliberation about the risks posed by biotechnology.”
The goal of the policy dialogue, one in a series hosted by the Initiative, was to stimulate an informative discussion about the ways consumers are likely to interpret GM labeling information and the economic implications for food producers, manufacturers, retailers, and the biotechnology industry itself. It was moderated by Daniel Charles, Contributing Science Correspondent for National Public Radio and author of Lords of The Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food.
Read more about the dialogue or to watch the Webcast of the event.