Despite a year of food safety concerns, consumer impressions of food biotechnology remain little changed from previous years, according to research from a 2007 survey Food Biotechnology: A Study of U.S. Consumer Trends.
The survey provides valuable insight into consumer trends by tracking familiarity and perceptions of food biotechnology over time. The survey of 1,000 American adults took place in July 2007, and data were weighted by age and education to be nationally representative.
Overall confidence in the food supply remained at a high level with 69 percent of Americans indicating they were “very” or “somewhat” confident in the food supply compared to 72 percent last year. However, the number of Americans selecting “very confident” decreased from 21 percent in 2006 to 15 percent this year.
Due to this high level of confidence, a sizeable number of Americans (25 percent) cited no particular food safety concern. Of the three-quarters of respondents who listed a specific food safety concern, disease and contamination topped the list at 38 percent; however, the biggest increase was in the “source” category, where concern about products’ origin caused this category to rise from six percent of those citing a specific concern with the food supply in 2006 to 20 percent this year.
Less than one percent mentioned food biotechnology as a specific concern. “The public’s attitudes about food biotechnology remained constant despite a year of tremendous media attention on food concerns,” said IFIC President and CEO David Schmidt. In fact, overall favorable impressions of plant biotechnology remained little changed in the past year and favorable impressions of animal biotechnology increased from 19 percent in 2006 to 24 percent this year.
Satisfaction with current information on food labels also remained high in 2007. Only 16 percent of consumers felt information was missing, with less than one percent specifically mentioning biotechnology. When informed that FDA requires special labeling only when the use of biotechnology introduces an allergen or when it substantially changes the food’s nutritional content, well over half of those polled (61 percent) “strongly” or “somewhat” support the FDA labeling requirements for food produced using biotechnology, while 24 percent were “neutral.” This was unchanged from last year’s survey.
Findings on animal biotechnology showed nearly half of Americans (46 percent) said they were “somewhat” or “very” likely to buy meat, milk, and eggs from cloned animals approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When the exact same question was asked regarding animals enhanced through “genetic engineering” rather than “cloning,” the number of Americans who were “very” or “somewhat” likely to buy these food products jumped to 61 percent, showing that the terminology used to describe foods produced from biotechnology makes a difference. Both of these figures show an increase from the 2006 survey.
Consumer support continues to correlate with increased awareness about the potential positive impacts of animal biotechnology. Two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) said they had a positive impression of animal biotechnology when informed that “animal biotechnology can improve the quality and safety of food,” up from 59 percent in 2006. More than half of Americans (53 percent) reacted positively to the statement “animal biotechnology can increase farm efficiency,” up from 36 percent in 2005 and 47 percent in 2006.
Another area of interest in this year’s survey included the new addition of questions about sustainable food production. Although Americans use a variety of terms to describe “sustainability,” 83 percent equate the term to “long-lasting” or “self-sufficiency.” Close to three-quarters of Americans (70 percent), however, say they have heard “nothing” about sustainable food production. When sustainability was defined as a method to “operate in a manner which does not jeopardize the availability of resources for future generations,” 63 percent of Americans said they thought it was important.
When consumers were asked to rank five factors related to growing crops in a sustainable way, the factor ranked number one was “increasing the production of food staples in the world, thereby reducing world hunger,” with “reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food” coming in second. Other eco-friendly factors like rainforest conservation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions received lower rankings.