Proposed on-pack food labeling graphics developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to disclose “bioengineered” (BE) foods would increase consumer concerns about the products, according to new research from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.
Disclosure of bioengineered products was mandated by Congress in 2016 legislation dubbed the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The law provides options for food manufacturers for providing such disclosure, including on-pack symbols, text or QR codes that direct consumers to food and beverage company websites for such information.
The IFIC study uses as an example a bottle of canola oil labeled with various options: 1) without any BE logo or text, 2) with one of the three symbols (a plant, a sun or a smile), 3) with a symbol, plus “bioengineered” in text and 4) with a symbol, plus “may be bioengineered” in text. An additional group of consumers were shown just text disclosure, without any BE logo.
When shown the bottle without any disclosure, one-third (31 percent) of a group of respondents said they had human health concerns. That rose to 50 percent when shown the BE “plant” symbol, further increasing to 51 percent when text was added to indicate that the product was “bioengineered,” and to 57 percent when “may be bioengineered” was added to the “plant” logo.
Consumers also were asked how they preferred to receive the legally required bioengineered disclosure information. “Symbol or visual representation” was selected as the top method by 51 percent, followed by “text on a food package” at 29 percent. Sending a text message to receive more information, visiting a website, calling a phone number, and scanning an electronic or digital link fell far behind.
The IFIC survey also asked about broader perceptions of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or bioengineered products. More than one-third (36 percent) of respondents said they know very little or nothing at all about bioengineered foods, identical to the number who say they know at least a fair amount. Despite the low level of knowledge, a greater number (47 percent) said they avoid GMO foods at least somewhat.
The majority (85 percent) of those who avoid GMOs do so out of human health concerns, with the environment (43 percent), animal health (36 percent) and agriculture/farming (34 percent) concerns trailing behind. The underlying law and USDA’s proposed rule both make clear that bioengineered food disclosure is not related to health or safety concerns.
“Despite broad scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to consume, a majority of Americans seem to be convinced otherwise. It’s a significant disconnect and it underscores the need for more creative public education on the science behind our food,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation, in a press release.
Contrary to the IFIC study, a separate study from the University of Vermont showed that the state’s disclosure label – which now is preempted by the federal standard – had improved consumer attitudes toward GMOs in Vermont, the only U.S. state to have implemented a mandatory labeling policy prior to enactment of the federal law. The study, authored by Jane Kolodinsky, an applied economist in UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, compared levels of consumer opposition to GMO foods in Vermont with consumer attitudes in the rest of the country. Opposition to GMO food fell by 19 percent in Vermont after the implementation of mandatory labels, according to the study’s analysis.
Co-authored by Jayson Lusk of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, the study “suggests a simple, straightforward label disclosing whether a product is ‘produced or partially produced using GMO ingredients’ may improve consumer confidence in GMO technologies and enable consumers to make an informed decision,” UVM stated.
USDA’s proposed national labeling regulations seek a narrower definition of genetic engineering and use “bioengineered” or “BE,” as a descriptor for genetic engineering instead of “GMO” – because that is the term used by Congress in the law.
The deadline to comment on USDA’s proposal to implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard is July 3. NGFA serves on the Steering Committee of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, and has been intimately involved in developing the coalition’s comments on the USDA proposal. NGFA also plans to join with several other like-minded associations in submitting separate comments reiterating and expanding upon several aspects of the coalition’s comments that have particular importance to the grain, feed and processing industry that NGFA represents.