After a decade of consumer attitudinal research, it is clear that a majority of consumers are confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply and express little to no concern about food and agricultural biotechnology. A significant majority also have no outstanding concern about labeling foods produced using biotechnology as such.
Higher awareness correlates with purchase intent, with a few exceptions, and the provision of information and context has a positive effect on attitudes. Therefore, with increasing numbers of consumers who state that they have heard nothing about biotechnology, there is a clear need for science-based information about the subject. This information should be conveyed clearly and accurately to the public, using understandable language and providing contextual information.
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) commissioned Cogent Research to conduct the 11th in a series (1997 to 2006) of quantitative assessments of U.S. adult consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology during June and July of 2006. The purpose of the study is to:
- track public awareness and perceptions of food biotechnology;
- identify concerns related to foods that have been produced using biotechnology, within the context of broader food safety and labeling issues;
- measure the extent to which consumers change their behavior because of biotech foods; and
- measure the extent to which certain benefits of agricultural biotechnology resonate with the public.
In 2006, the IFIC consumer survey on food biotechnology migrated from phone to Web methodology. Collection of consumer data via the Internet is currently considered the preferred survey methodology, due to improved access to consumers and potentially a more accurate measure of consumer opinion, compared to phone data collection.
The migration to Web from phone included measures to ensure the continued ability to track attitudes over time, and to correct for observed differences that were due to changes in methodology. The sampling error is ≤ 4.4%, and statistically significant differences are represented at the 95% confidence level. Finally, the data were weighted according to U.S. Census data, in order to be nationally projectable.
Overall, a majority of Americans are confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply and express little to no concern about food and agricultural biotechnology.
Nearly three-fourths (72%) of consumers say they are confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. When prompted to indicate food safety concerns, most consumers mention microbial foodborne illness (36%) or improper handling (35%), while only three percent of all consumers cite food biotechnology.
And although more than half of all Americans report avoiding some type of food or food ingredient (59%), none mention biotech foods as something they are avoiding. When asked directly, only two percent say they have recently changed their behavior due to concerns about food biotechnology.
Many consumers are neutral (33%) or unsure (18%) when asked specifically for their opinion on food biotechnology. However, those consumers who do have an opinion are almost twice as likely to have a positive view (32%) than to have a negative view (17%).
Food biotechnology is not a consumer labeling demand.
An overwhelming majority of consumers (82%) state that there is no information that they would like to see added to food labels. Only one percent name biotechnology as information they would like to see added. These findings have been consistent since 2001 when the question was first asked on the survey. Additionally, support for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) current policy regarding labeling of foods produced through biotechnology is strong at sixty-four percent, with another one-fourth (24%) holding neutral views, and only twelve percent opposing the current policy.
Although many consumers have heard at least “a little” about food biotechnology, awareness has declined and knowledge is superficial.
Although close to three-fourths (71%) of consumers have heard at least “a little” about biotechnology, only eight percent have heard “a lot”. Three-fourths (74%) of consumers are unaware that biotech foods are currently available in the supermarket, and the twenty-six percent who are aware most often name “vegetables” as the food that is available.
In light of the lack of high awareness of food biotechnology, it is not surprising that over half (53%) of consumers are unsure about potential benefits. However, consumers with an opinion are twice as likely to believe biotechnology will provide benefits in the next few years than not (33% vs. 14%, respectively). Those who believe there will be benefits are most likely to cite improved nutrition (41%) or quality (35%).
Communicating specific benefits may enhance perception.
Learning of the benefits of biotech foods has a significant impact on consumers’ likelihood to buy, particularly for a health benefit (77% likely to buy for increased omega-3 fatty acid content; 75% for reduced saturated fat content) or insect protection/pesticide reduction (75%), but also for improved taste or freshness (63%).
In general, likelihood to purchase biotech foods increases as awareness increases. However, awareness levels have less impact on purchase intent when it comes to consuming healthful fats, where purchase intent is high across all awareness levels.
Although awareness is low, consumers remain open to the broad concept of animal biotechnology, in general.
Animal biotechnology favorability has shifted toward both more positive impressions (“very favorable” has increased from 1% to 6%) while the most negative impressions have declined (12%, down from 16%). Still, there are more who don’t know enough to form an opinion (30%, up from 24%), and twenty-eight percent are neutral.
At the same time, the number of consumers who have read or heard "nothing at all" about animal biotechnology has increased for the second year in a row (55% vs. 46% in 2005 and 40% in 2004). Indeed, those who don’t know enough to form an opinion are more likely to have heard nothing at all about the technology.
There is evidence of the positive impact that information can have on acceptance of animal biotechnology, in some cases. Information examined in this study included descriptions of specific types of animal biotechnology, benefits, and government conclusions regarding safety. When specific types of animal biotechnology are described, consumers express higher favorability for animal genomics (37%) and genetic engineering (35%), compared to favorability for the broad concept of animal biotechnology. (See discussion of animal cloning below.)
Regarding the impact of benefits information, more than half of consumers say that their impression of animal biotechnology improves when they are told it can improve the quality and safety of food (59%). Nearly half are positively impacted by information regarding increases in farm efficiency (47%), and reduction of environmental impact of animal waste (49%). In addition, more than half (58%) of consumers say they would be likely to buy products from animals enhanced through genetic engineering if the FDA determined they were safe.
Consumers remain opposed to the notion of animal cloning, as well as the use of cloned animals for breeding.
Less than one-fifth (16%) of U.S. adults give a favorable rating for their impression of animal cloning, while over half (56%) give an unfavorable rating. Regarding the use of cloned animals for breeding purposes, more consumers are neutral (36%) compared to those who are neutral toward cloning (28%), and fewer are unfavorable (46%).
Fewer consumers state that they are “not at all likely” to purchase foods from cloned animals (30% vs. 35%), compared to 2005, as well as an increase in those who are “very likely” to purchase foods derived from the offspring of cloned animals (9% vs. 4%), with safety assurances from FDA. However, the majority remain unlikely to purchase foods from cloned animals (58%) or their offspring (59%).
The majority of consumers continue to be unaware of plant-made pharmaceuticals, but those who are aware tend to be favorable.
The majority (59%) of consumers say they know "nothing at all" about using biotechnology to produce medicine in food crops. Although twenty-five percent of consumers say they don’t know enough about plant-made pharmaceuticals to form an opinion and twenty-seven percent are neutral, those who have formed an opinion lean heavily towards the positive (42% favorable versus 6% unfavorable).
While there is no overwhelming consumer demand for more information about food biotechnology, it will be important to continue to make science-based information available to the public. Should interest in foods enhanced through biotechnology increase, or questions arise, health professionals, government officials, and food providers should be prepared to help the public understand issues such as safety, regulation, and benefits of the technology. Such efforts can contribute to an overall appreciation for how the foods consumers enjoy make the journey from farm to plate.
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