Global Issues >> Biotechnology


Labeling GM Foods
An overwhelming majority thinks GM foods should be labeled as such. A strong majority would be willing to pay more to ensure labeling, and an overwhelming majority would like to have access to detailed information about such products. A strong majority also regards it as legitimate for Europe and Japan to require labeling of genetically modified products, even if this might discourage consumers from buying US products. Even though the FDA is highly trusted, a strong majority believes current regulations are not adequate to protect people.

In recent surveys an overwhelming majority has held that GM foods should be labeled as genetically modified. A July 2003 ABC News survey found that a near-unanimous 92% felt that "the federal government should...require labels on food saying whether or not it has been genetically modified or bio-engineered." Only 6% believed the government should not require labeling. [1] In June 2000, a Harris Interactive poll found that 86% believe "the government should require the labeling of all packaged and other food products" stating that they contain ingredients that "have come from genetically modified crops." Just 13% felt that such labeling is "not important". [2] Likewise, 82% told Time/CNN pollsters in December 1998 that "genetically engineered food should be labeled as such" (should not be labeled: 14%). [3]

Other data also indicate that a very strong majority would also prefer more information be made available, in addition to labeling. [4] Even when informed that "such labeling would require special handling that would raise the price of food," more than two-thirds (68%) said they would personally be "willing to pay more for [their] food in order to have new labels that would indicate the presence of foods produced using biotechnology" (Gallup, September 1999). [5] Twenty-nine percent said they would not be willing to pay more. In a similar question, a January 2001 Mellman-POS survey asked "how important it is…to know whether a product contains genetically modified agricultural products." Seventy-five percent said it is at least "somewhat important", with a strong plurality (46%) saying it is "very important"; only about 1 in 5 felt it unimportant. [6]

A strong majority of Americans also believes that other countries should be able to require the labeling of US-produced GM foods. In a June 2002 poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, two-thirds (66%) felt that the "European Union and Japan should be able to require labeling of genetically modified food, even if this might keep consumers from purchasing food imported from the U.S." Only 26% felt they should not be able to do so.

Support for allowing other countries to label GM food was even higher when respondents were read pro and con arguments about such labeling. In an October 1999 PIPA poll, respondents were read the following arguments:

The European Union and Japan are considering requiring that labels be placed on genetically modified foods imported from the US (United States). They say that consumers have a right to know this because the long-term health effects of such foods are not known. The US says the foods are proven safe and that labeling could be costly and discourage people from buying the foods.

Then, when asked whether "the EU and Japan should or should not be able to require the labeling of genetically modified food from the US," an overwhelming 81% said they should be able, while just 18% thought they should not. This is all the more convincing, since just before hearing the series of questions on sanctions, respondents were told that the "US has complained that these trade barriers are unfair, and that they violate international trade agreements." [7] On most questions, there is a strong tendency of respondents to side with the US position. This indicates that majority support for labeling GM foods is very robust.

Several questions have been asked that attempt to determine if Americans agree with the Food and Drug Administration's current policy on labeling. A December 1999 Angus Reid/Economist survey posed the following question:

Current regulations in the US require labeling of genetically modified foods if they pose a health risk or if the nutritional value of the product has changed. Some people say that there is no need to change this labeling system, while others say there is a need to label all foods that have been genetically modified or contain genetically modified ingredients. Which best describes your overall view on the labeling of genetically modified food: continue with current regulations that have been established, where labeling is required if food poses a health risk or the nutritional value has changed, or require the labeling of all foods that have been genetically modified or contain genetically modified ingredients?

Eighty-four percent thought that labeling should be required, while just 14% felt that current regulations were satisfactory. [8]

The Wirthlin Group, in polling conducted for the International Food Information Council, most recently in May 2000, found support for the FDA policy, but in each case the poll questions were problematic. The results of one such question indicate that 69% of Americans support the FDA's policy. [9] The FDA policy is given a clear and positive presentation:

The US (United States) Food and Drug Administration, FDA, requires special labeling when a food is produced under certain conditions: when biotechnology's use introduces an allergen or when it substantially changes the food's nutritional content, like vitamins or fat, or its composition. Otherwise special labeling is not required.

However, no counterargument is given. Therefore respondents could believe that saying they oppose the policy means they do not want the FDA label requirement at all--or that they might prefer a more stringent one.

Another question that does offer a critique of the FDA finds a slim majority (52%) backing the FDA policy and 43% backing its critics. However, the presentation of the critics in the question is problematic. It reads: "Some critics…say that any food produced through biotechnology should be labeled even if the food has the same safety and nutritional content as other foods." This is problematic because the critics' case as to why such labeling should occur is not really made, and because the statement asserts that the critics would favor labeling even though the products are safe when, in fact, the critics argue that it is uncertain whether the products are safe. On the other hand, the FDA's case is quite clear and actually makes several arguments: "…others, including the FDA, believe such a labeling requirement has no scientific basis and would be costly and confusing to consumers." [10]

This leaves a puzzle that is difficult to resolve, given the limited data available. Even though the questions above are flawed, it is likely that more widespread knowledge of the FDA's position on this issue could mitigate the public's desire for labeling. This is because public confidence in the FDA is actually extremely high. In a Mellman-POS survey taken in January 2001, 85% of Americans said they "trust" what the FDA "says about genetically modified foods." Forty-four percent said they trust the FDA "a great deal" on this issue. [11] Indeed, a higher percentage declared trust in the FDA than in any other group tested. Yet, because such an overwhelming majority also supports the labeling of GM foods in principle, it seems unlikely that a clear presentation of the FDA's policy paired with a fair critique would result in such a large shift in opinion against the need for labeling. A more plausible explanation is that even though the public trusts the FDA a great deal, it still wants government to do more than it is currently doing. This explanation is bolstered by other data in which only a small minority expresses confidence that the government is adequately regulating the development of GM foods. In the May 2000 Texas A&M study, just 30% agreed with the statement that "current regulations on GM foods are sufficient to protect people." Forty-six percent disagreed. [12]