American consumers remain generally uninformed and confused about the health benefits or potential risks associated with genetically modified and irradiated foods, according to a new survey conducted for SN.
these foods, as well as to gauge their confidence in the government's monitoring of these products.
Percentages of safety and risk for GMO foods were nearly equally weighed on both sides of the spectrum as 22% of consumers said they believe GMO foods "are safer to eat," and 29% said these foods "could cause future health problems for those who eat them." Irradiated foods elicited stronger reactions overall among the respondents, though again both sides of the issue chalked up similar percentages -- 38% said they feel irradiated foods "are safer to eat," and 40% said they feel irradiated foods "could cause future health problems for those who eat them."
According to Ron Eustice, executive director, Minnesota Beef Council, Minneapolis, an estimated 8,000 supermarkets in more than 40 states sell irradiated ground beef, 700 to 800 stores sell irradiated poultry and 2,000 retailers sell irradiated papaya (to control fruit fly infestation).
Eustice said, "Irradiation will do for ground beef what pasteurization has done for milk." However, he agreed that more education is necessary to spark real demand. He estimated that sales of irradiated meat are less than 1% of the total ground beef sold.
Retailers selling irradiated products view it as giving their customers a choice. "We feel very strongly that offering the choice of irradiated products is the right thing to do for our customers," said Jeanne Colleluori, spokeswoman, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y. While she declined to give specific sales figures, Colleluori said sales have increased over the last year. Wegmans rolled out its irradiated meat program three years ago, backed by an extensive public and employee education program.
Rich Savner, spokesman for Pathmark, Carteret, N.J., described sales of the two varieties of irradiated meat sold at Pathmark as "fair."
According to Savner, the government and its respective agencies have the responsibility to inform the public that these products are safe. "If it is a health-safety issue, the responsibility is upon the government to come out and say that there are benefits from irradiated meats."
The survey also measured perceptions of these foods by gender. Men appeared slightly more open than women to irradiated foods being "safer to eat" compared to non-irradiated foods. This was especially true of men aged 35 years and older. Conversely, women appeared slightly more open to GMO foods being "safer to eat" compared to non-GMO foods.
Women aged 18 to 54 are more likely to feel that GMO foods, especially irradiated foods, "could cause future health problems for people who eat them" than their male counterparts. Perhaps not surprisingly, larger households and households with children, especially younger children, exhibit concern about the potential health risks of these foods.
Other Key Findings
The majority (57%) of American adults indicated they don't know or aren't sure what percentage of packaged foods currently sold contain GMOs, and the average percentage reported by respondents who "know" is less than half of the actual amount. Most industry sources report between 70% and 80% of processed foods sold today contain some GMO food ingredients. These ingredients include corn syrup, corn starch, corn oil and canola oil.
Neither irradiated nor GMO foods got high marks with consumers when it came to some of the foods' reported benefits. Only about one in five American adults (19% of respondents) said they "like to buy irradiated foods" because they're less likely to contain harmful microorganisms. Only 12% of respondents said they "like to buy GMO foods" because of their additional health benefits and greater yield.
Lack of knowledge was a factor as to consumers' concerns about the safety of the foods. Only 15% of American adults feel enough is known about GMO foods and irradiated foods to understand whether they're safe.
Just 12% of consumers agreed that the government is properly controlling and monitoring these foods.
The vast majority of American adults (75%) feel that GMO and irradiated foods should be clearly marked on labels.
As noted before, irradiated foods are seen by more American adults as safer relative to non-irradiated foods than are GMO foods. Those living in the Northeast seem slightly less positive about the relative safety of GMO and irradiated foods than those in other parts of the country.
Though level of education doesn't seem to correlate with acceptance of GMO foods being safer to eat, it does correlate positively with acceptance of irradiated foods as being safer to eat. GMO foods are less accepted by higher-income respondents, while irradiated foods are more accepted by those with higher incomes. GMO foods are more accepted by households with children -- especially by those with younger children. While overall acceptance of irradiated foods doesn't seem to differ according to whether households have children, age of children within the household does correlate with acceptance of irradiated foods -- typically, the older the children in the household, the more accepting the respondent is of irradiated foods.
Concern about future health problems associated with eating irradiated foods is stronger than that for GMO foods. For GMO foods, the level of concern appears similar across regions, and similar in total for men vs. women. With irradiated foods, the percentage of respondents who have this concern also seems fairly similar across regions. Concern about future health problems for both GMO and irradiated foods appears strongest in younger women (especially those under age 45). Those respondents aged 55 years and older show the least concern about possible future health problems.
The level of respondents' education doesn't seem to correlate with level of concern about possible future health problems related to GMO foods. Level of education does, however, correlate with concern about possible future health risks of irradiated foods. The survey found more highly educated Americans are more likely to feel irradiated foods are safer to eat. Generally speaking, the larger the household, the more concern there is regarding future health risks of either GMO foods or irradiated foods. This is likely related at least in part to concerns for younger children's safety, as households with children appear more concerned about future health risks of both food types than those households without children.
One in four American adults (25%) feels GMO foods taste better than normal foods, while 13% feel they are flavorless. Only 9% feel that irradiated foods taste better, while 24% feel irradiated foods are flavorless.
Examining cost perceptions of these foods, 42% of American adults feel that GMO foods cost more, and a third (33%) feel irradiated foods cost more.
The Organic Option
Openness to purchasing organic foods is much stronger than to purchasing irradiated or GMO foods. Forty percent of respondents agreed strongly or somewhat that they like to buy organic foods more than GMO or irradiated foods because they feel organic foods are the most healthy and nutritious.
Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, said here's where consumers have a choice in buying foods without GMOs. "The USDA's uniform organic standards specifically say biotech foods is not an issue with these foods."
Just 19% of those surveyed agreed they like to buy irradiated foods due to their lower likelihood of containing microorganisms, and only 12% agreed they like to buy GMO foods because they provide additional health benefits and are bountiful.
Interestingly, a strong factor in this low preference for irradiated foods and GMO foods is that respondents neither agree nor disagree with the statements -- possibly a further indicator of insufficient knowledge of these foods' benefits and risks. Respondents seem equally divided among positive, neutral and negative reactions to the idea that they're more concerned about other qualities than knowing whether they're purchasing any of these food items.
Faith in Federal Control
Only 12% of American adults agree (whether strongly or somewhat) that the government is properly controlling and monitoring GMO and irradiated foods. One-third disagree, but 55% aren't sure. Nearly half disagree that enough is known about these foods to understand if they're safe; only 15% agree with that statement. However, a strong three-fourths majority strongly or somewhat agrees that GMO and irradiated foods should be clearly identified on labels.
While many in the industry agree more can be done to make the packaging appealing, irradiated foods are required to be labeled. GMO foods are not labeled.
Childs of the GMA agreed that consumers want more information, but the GMA doesn't believe it should be by labeling foods that contain GMOs. "We won't answer consumers' questions about biotech foods with mandated labeling," she said. "We'll answer those questions through an open regulatory process."
Need for Education
About one-third of American adults (35%) indicated they apparently feel that irradiated foods present health risks. One-fourth (26%) felt similarly about GMO foods. For both food types, the largest percentage of respondents said the risks lie somewhere between serious and nonexistent, a response that may further indicate a lack of knowledge about such foods.
About the Poll
Harris Interactive, Rochester, N.Y., fielded a study from Sept. 26 through 30 via its QuickQuery online omnibus service, interviewing a nationwide sample of 2,074 U.S. adults. In theory, with a probability sample of this size, one can say with 95% certainty that the results have a statistical precision of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points of what they would be if the entire adult population had been polled with complete accuracy. This is not a probability sample. Data were weighted to be representative of the total U.S. adult population on the basis of region, age within gender, education, household income, and race/ethnicity.
At the start of the questionnaire, respondents were shown the following descriptions of genetically modified organism (GMO) foods and irradiated foods:
Genetically modified organism (GMO) foods: Biotech/engineered foods. Instead of breeding to enhance desired traits, plants are modified in the lab, through genetic alteration, to enhance desired traits such as improved nutritional content, disease and pest resistance, increased yield, and so on.
Irradiated foods: Foods are exposed to X-rays, gamma radiation or electron beams (also known as radiant energy) for a short period of time in order to destroy microorganisms that cause food-borne illnesses and parasites that cause disease (e.g., salmonella, E. coli, Listeria), and/or to slow ripening.
After reviewing the above descriptions, respondents proceeded to answer the questions.
What Is the Availability Of GMO Foods?
Most consumers are unsure of the extent to which foods with GMO ingredients are available in supermarkets. Consumers believe that about 30% of packaged foods sold contain GMOs, about half of the actual amount.
Consumer Beliefs About Percentage Of Foods Containing GMO Ingredients
1%-10% 7% (Consumer-Perceived Average)
31%-40% 5% Actual Percent (According to Industry Sources)
Don't Know 57%
Source for all charts: Harris Interactive QuickQuery online omnibus service study conducted for SN
Perception of Benefits/Risks
About a third of American adults indicated they're unsure about the specific characteristics of GMO and irradiated foods listed here. When it came to safety-health benefits against future health problems, consumers weighed in somewhat equally on both sides of the spectrum.
Percentage of American Adults Who Feel That Each Quality Is True of GMO or Irradiated Foods
(respondents could check more than one)
Qualities GMO Foods Irradiated Foods
Cost More 42% 33%
Provide Additional Health Benefits 36% 20%
Are Safer to Eat 22% 38%
Could Cause Future Health Problems
for People Who Eat Them 29% 40%
Taste Better 25% 9%
Are Flavorless 13% 24%
None of These Qualities Are True 6% 5%
Not Sure About Any of These Qualities 31% 30%
How Other Factors Like Demand For Organic Foods Compare
Many respondents remained on the fence when it came to agreeing or disagreeing with the statements listed below, thus indicating that consumers are barely knowledgeable of these foods' benefits and risks. Respondents also were equally divided across the spectrum when it came to being more concerned about other factors besides GMO foods.
Percentage of American Adults Who Agree, Remain Neutral or Disagree With the Following:
Agree Strongly/ Neither Agree Disagree Strongly/
Statement Somewhat Nor Disagree Somewhat
I like to buy organic foods more than I like to buy GMO or irradiated foods because organic foods are the most healthy and nutritious.
40% 39% 21%
I'm more concerned about other qualities (such as price and convenience) than I am about knowing whether I'm purchasing any of these types of food.
35% 34% 31%
I like to buy irradiated foods (including meats) because they're less likely to contain harmful microorganisms.
19% 48% 33%
I like to buy genetically modified (GMO) foods because they provide additional health benefits and are bountiful.
12% 56% 32%
Perceived Health Risks When it comes to evaluating the health risks of GMO, irradiated and other foods, many consumers' responses were in the middle on this question, indicating a lack of knowledge on the risk factors associated with these foods. However, most consumers believe that organic foods don't present any health risks.