US consumers concerned about safety of GM foods

New poll echoes earlier findings over five-year period of consumer opinion research

Public awareness and understanding of genetically modified (GM) foods in the United States remains relatively low and consumers’ opinions about GM foods are as divided now as they were five years ago, according to a new survey released by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. The survey also reveals that animal cloning causes great discomfort among American consumers. The announcement of survey findings marks the fifth year that the Pew Initiative has monitored public understanding of and support for different types of biotechnology.

The analysis highlights the results of a 2006 Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology poll and compares them to results of similar PIFB polls conducted in March 2001, September 2003, September 2004 and November 2005. Among the most noteworthy findings:

  • Americans hold mixed attitudes towards GM foods. Consumers are generally uncertain about the safety of GM foods, although opinions can shift with new information. Thirty-four percent of Americans indicate that they believe GM foods are safe and 29% say they are unsafe. Once information is provided about GM foods and the number of processed foods that are produced using some form of biotechnology, however, Americans feel more comfortable about the safety of the biotech products. Forty-five percent of respondents say GM foods are safe in this context and 29% say they are unsafe, a 10-percentage point increase in net perceptions of safety. These numbers represent a shift in informed attitudes over time. In 2001, when PIFB first conducted a survey of consumer attitudes, 48% felt that GM foods were safe and only 21% believed they were unsafe.
  • Awareness of GM food has declined over the last five years. In the first poll conducted by the Pew Initiative in 2001, 45% of American consumers said they had heard about GM food that is sold in grocery stores. A slight majority (54%) claimed to have not heard much (29%) or nothing at all (25%). After reaching a low point in 2004 (32%), public notice of GM foods increased to 41% in 2005 and remained stable in 2006. Additionally, consumers have consistently underestimated the amount of GM foods they most likely have eaten, with just 26% believing they have eaten such foods and 60% believing they have not in 2006. In 2001, 19% said they “had eaten” GM foods, while 62% said they “had not” and 19% said they “didn’t know.”
  • Although Americans are not well informed about animal cloning – they are overwhelmingly uncomfortable with it. A strong majority (61%) of those Americans who claim to have heard about animal cloning are uncomfortable with it, while 27% express comfort. Those unfamiliar with animal cloning express greater reservations, with 68% of Americans indicating that they are uncomfortable and 16% stating that they are comfortable.
  • Americans support regulation of GM foods. Forty-one percent of consumers who claim basic awareness of the regulation of GM foods believe that there is “too little” regulation, while 19% of Americans say it is “just the right amount.” The survey reveals that regulation may increase confidence in GM foods. Forty-three percent of respondents surveyed said they would be more willing to eat GM foods if the FDA was mandated to regulate GM foods before they entered the marketplace, while 14 percent are less willing and 35% of consumers surveyed said it would make no difference.
  • Friends and family are the most trusted sources of information about GM foods. The majority of people polled (37%) trust their friends and families above all other groups and organizations tested as sources of information on GM foods. Farmers were the next-most trusted (33%) followed by scientists and academics (32%). The most dramatic changes in trust levels occurred with respect to the FDA. In 2001, 41% of consumers said they trust the FDA when it comes to information about GM foods. At that time it was the most trusted organization. Since then, the agency’s trustworthiness has declined to 29%, and it now ranks fourth on the list of groups and organizations.

“In polls conducted over the last five years, we continue to see that public opinion remains ‘up for grabs’ on GM foods,” said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. “Still generally uncertain about GM foods, the US public has consistently supported strong and clear federal regulations to ensure that these products are safe. How the next generation of biotech products is introduced – and consumers’ trust in the regulation of GM foods – will be critical in shaping U.S. attitudes in the long term.”

The nationwide survey, conducted by The Mellman Group, September 20-26, consisted of telephone interviews of 1,000 American consumers. The margin of error for this survey is +/-3.1 percent. The margin of error is higher for subgroups.

To view a summary of the findings from the survey, as well as the statistical results, please go to:

© Copyright January 2007, The Organic & Non-GMO Report