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More U.S. Consumers See Potential
Benefits to Food Biotechnology

Many Oblivious to Labeling Debate

IFIC BACKGROUND
Mar 2001

Contact: Nick Alexander or Cheryl Toner; (202) 296-6540

IFIC's fifth survey on U.S. consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology suggests consumers may be surprisingly oblivious to the frequent debate over the labeling of foods produced with the aid of biotechnology.

The new survey, conducted January 19-21, 2001 by Wirthlin Worldwide, includes a few new questions to determine how consumers consider food biotechnology in context with other food safety issues.

Only 2% of the consumers polled named "altered/engineered food" as something they were concerned about when it comes to food safety, despite extensive "StarLink" coverage in fall 2000-with almost daily news reports focusing on the recall of products containing biotech corn not yet approved for food use and the resulting discussions of regulatory decisions.

Again, when asked if they could think of any information not currently included on food labels that they would like to see on food labels, only 2% of the people surveyed responded "genetically altered." 74% said they could not think of any additional information they'd like to see on food labels.

For the first time since IFIC began its surveys, the number of Americans expecting to benefit from biotechnology in the future increased. Sixty-four percent expect to benefit from biotechnology within the next 5 years. While 79% of those surveyed in 1997 expected to benefit, the trend declined to a low of 59% in May 2000 but now appears to be turning upward.

In general, how did the massive media coverage of a corn product recall affect consumer knowledge and attitudes? Not a whole lot, according to the IFIC survey. More consumers than in the previous survey (conducted in May 2000) correctly identify corn products as foods currently in the supermarket that have been produced using biotechnology. But overall awareness of the presence of biotech foods in grocery stores has actually decreased since May 2000. And only 1 in 4 consumers has heard anything about recalls of foods produced through biotechnology.

Support remains high for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling policy regarding food biotechnology. The FDA currently requires no special labeling, except when biotechnology's use introduces an allergen or when it substantially changes a food's nutritional content. When specifically asked, 70% of respondents said they supported the policy.

The only perplexing response elicited by the new survey was to a question which presented consumers with biotechnology critics' desire to label all foods produced through biotechnology even if the safety and nutritional content are unchanged. When offered that specific choice, more than half of consumers polled sided with the critics and only 37% remained supportive of the FDA policy. That response is puzzling given the strong support for the FDA labeling policy in the question immediately preceding. And then, in the next question, when consumers were presented with information resource alternatives to food labels, 75% agreed that information should be provided through toll-free numbers, brochures, and Web sites "instead of labeling".

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International Food Information Council (IFIC) is a nonprofit organization that communicates sound science-based information on food safety and nutrition topics to health professionals, journalists, government officials and consumers. IFIC programs are supported by the broad-based food, beverage and agriculture industries. IFIC materials can be found online at http://ific.org.

International Food Information Council

"U.S. Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Biotechnology"

Wirthlin Group Quorum Surveys

October 8-12, 1999, February 5-8, 1999, March 21-24, 1997,

May 5-9 2000, and January 19-21, 2001

Method

Approximately 1000 telephone interviews were conducted in March 1997, February 1999, October 1999, May 2000, and January 2001, among a national probability sample of adults 18 and older (stratified by state) in the continental United States. The range of error for a sample size of 1000 is +/- 3% at the 95% confidence level.

1. Think about your diet over the past few months, are there any foods or ingredients that you have avoided or eaten less of?
(New question in 2001)

Jan. 2001

Yes
No
Don?t Know/ Refused
54%
46%
-

1. a. And what foods or ingredients did you avoid or eat less of? (n=542) (Percentages do not add up to 100% because multiple responses were allowed.)

Jan. 2001

Fats/cholesterol
Carbohydrates
Animal products
Spices/spicy food
Other
Caffeine/soda
41%
31%
28%
11%
9%
8%

2. Can you think of any information that is not currently included on food labels that you would like to see on food labels? And what types of information would that be?
(New question in 2001)

Jan. 2001

Yes
Ingredients (ie fats, salt)
Other
Genetically altered

No

26%
13%
11%
2%

74%

3. What, if anything are you concerned about when it comes to food safety? (Percentages do not add up to 100% because multiple responses were allowed.)
(New question in 2001)

Jan. 2001
Packaging
Food Handling/ Preparation
Other
Disease/ Contamination
Chemicals/ Pesticides in Food
Altered/Engineered Food

Nothing

27%
23%
23%
16%
10%
2%

9%

4. As you may know, some food products and medicines are being developed with the help of new scientific techniques. The general area is called "biotechnology" and includes tools such as genetic engineering. Biotechnology is also being used to improve crop plants. How much have you heard or read about biotechnology? Would you say you have read or heard . . . ?

1997

Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
Total read or heard 79% 69% 73% 79% 77%
A lot 11% 7% 13% 14% 15%
Some 35% 26% 24% 31% 32%
A little 32% 36% 36% 34% 31%
Nothing at all 21% 31% 27% 21% 22%
Don?t know/refused - - - - -

5. Now, using a 10-point scale, how well informed would you say you are about biotechnology, if zero means you are not at all informed about biotechnology and ten means you are very well informed about biotechnology.

Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
10 2%2%2% 3%
9 0% 1% 1% 2%
83%5% 4%7%
74% 5% 6% 6%
6 3% 5% 7% 6%
511% 11% 14% 15%
4 6% 11% 11% 9%
3 16% 11% 12% 15%
2 16% 13% 11% 8%
1 39% 35% 32% 29%
Don?t know/
refused
1% 1% - -

6. As far as you know, are there any foods produced through biotechnology in the supermarket now?

1997 Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
Yes 40% 33% 38% 43% 36%
No 37% 47% 38% 23% 44%
Don?t know/
refused
23% 20% 24% 34% 20%

6. a. If yes (360 out of 1000 respondents for Jan 2001), which foods? (Total percentages are greater than 100% because multiple answers were given.)
(New question for Feb. 1999 survey).

Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
Vegetables 29% 42% 45% 46%
Tomatoes 20% 27% 21% 14%
Fruits 16% 23% 17% 11%
Meats 16% 25% 16% 20%
Produce/ Processed Foods 11% 5% 3% -
Milk/Dairy 9% 10% 6% 6%
Cereals/Grains 8% 6% 7% 13%
Corn 6% 9% 18% 20%
Lettuce 4% 1% 3% -
Potatoes 3% 5% 3% -
Soy 3% 3% 4% 3%
Cheese 2% - - -
Yogurt 2% N/A - -
Corn Products - - - 9%
Taco Shells/ Tortillas - - - 5%

7. All things being equal, how likely would you be to buy a variety of produce, like tomatoes or potatoes, if it had been modified by biotechnology to taste better or fresher? Would you be very likely, somewhat likely, not too likely, or not at all likely to buy these items?

1997 Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
Total Likely 55% 62% 51% 54% 58%
Very likely 19% 20% 18% 19% 19%
Somewhat likely 36% 42% 33% 36% 39%
Total Not Likely 43% 37% 43% 43% 38%
Not too likely 21% 18% 18% 21% 19%
Not at all likely 22% 19% 25% 22% 19%
Don?t know/refused 2% 1% 6% 2% 4%

8. All things being equal, how likely would you be to buy a variety of produce, like tomatoes or potatoes, if it had been modified by biotechnology to be protected from insect damage and required fewer pesticide applications? Would you be very likely, somewhat likely, not too likely, or not at all likely to buy these items?

1997 Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
Total Likely 77% 77% 67% 69% 70%
Very likely 39% 34% 28% 30% 32%
Somewhat likely 38% 43% 39% 39% 38%
Total Not Likely 23% 21% 27% 28% 27%
Not too likely 11% 11% 11% 14% 14%
Not at all likely 12% 10% 16% 14% 13%
Don?t know/refused 1% 2% 6% 3% 3%

9. Biotechnology has also been used to enhance plants that yield foods like cooking oils. If cooking oil with reduced saturated fat made from these new plants was available, what effect would the use of biotechnology have on your decision to buy this cooking oil. Would this have a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect on your purchase decision? (New question for Feb. 1999)

Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
Positive effect 57% 42% 40% 46%
Negative effect 10% 15% 18% 17%
No effect 32% 39% 39% 33%
Don?t know/refused 1% 4% 3% 4%

10. Do you feel that biotechnology will provide benefits for you or your family within the next five years?

1997 Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
Yes 78% 75% 63% 59% 64%
No 14% 15% 21% 25% 22%
Don?t know/refused 8% 10% 16% 16% 14%

11. The U.S. 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. Would you say that you support or oppose this policy of FDA?

1997 Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
Total support 78% 78% 69% 69% 70%
Strongly support 45% 50% 45% 42% 40%
Somewhat support 33% 28% 24% 27% 30%
Total oppose 20% 19% 26% 28% 24%
Somewhat oppose 9% 9% 12% 10% 11%
Strongly oppose 11% 10% 14% 18% 13%
Neither support nor oppose 3%
Don't know/refused 2% 3% 5% 3% 3%

12. Some critics of the U.S. FDA policy say that any food produced through biotechnology should be labeled even if the food has the same safety and nutritional content as other foods. However, others, including the FDA, believe such a labeling requirement has no scientific basis, and would be costly and confusing to consumers. Are you more likely to agree with the labeling position of the FDA or with its critics?

1997 Feb. 1999 Oct. 1999 May 2000 Jan. 2001
FDA 57% 58% 50% 52% 37%
Critics 40% 37% 45% 43% 58%
Don?t know/refused 3% 5% 5% 5% 5%

13. (This question was re-worded in 2001. Following is the wording and data for each survey.)

Please tell me whether you: Strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree, don't know about the following statement.

(1997-2000) Simply labeling products as containing biotech ingredients does not provide enough information for consumers. It would be better for food manufacturers, the government, health professionals and others to provide more details through toll-free numbers, brochures and Web sites.

Oct. 1999 May 2000
Total Agree 81% 86%
Strongly agree 51% 55%
Somewhat agree 30% 31%
Total Disagree 12% 12%
Somewhat disagree 7% 7%
Strongly disagree 5% 5%
Don't know/refused 7% 2%

(2001) Simply labeling products as containing biotech ingredients does not provide enough information for consumers. Instead of labeling biotechnology ingredients, it would be better for food manufacturers, the government, health professionals and others to provide more details through toll-free phone numbers, brochures and web sites.

Jan. 2001
Total Agree 75%
Strongly agree 41%
Somewhat agree 34%
Total Disagree 21%
Somewhat disagree 11%
Strongly disagree 10%
Don't know/refused 4%

14. During the past few months, have you taken any action or done anything because of any concerns you may have about foods produced using biotechnology?
(New question in 2001)

Jan. 2001
Yes 5%
No 95%
Don?t know/ refused -

15. Have you heard or read anything regarding a recall of food products that contain ingredients produced through biotechnology?
(New question in 2001)

Jan. 2001
Yes 24%
No 73%
Don?t know/refused 3%

16. How much have you read or heard regarding a recall of StarLink corn products that were produced using biotechnology? Would you say you have heard?
(New question in 2001)

Jan. 2001
Total heard or read 47%
A lot 9%
Some 16%
A Little 22%
Nothing at all 53%