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WASHINGTON, Sep 02, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Sixty percent of Americans have heard little about genetically engineered food, but 10 years after products began showing up on grocery store shelves some people remain uneasy -- concerned about safety and labeling, consumer advocates told United Press International.
GE food has not met widespread visible resistance in the United States -- most people do not know they are eating genetically modified food and few vocalize concerns or avoid such products, according to polling data -- but those concerns consumers do have center around safety and labeling.
In a report released in late July, the Institute of Medicine said "foods modified by any method that changes genetic composition should, when warranted by their individual characteristics, be evaluated on a case-by-case basis before their commercial release."
The report, which will guide the government in future safety assessment of GE foods, said some genetically modified food that is similar to commonly used conventional versions might not warrant a safety evaluation but if an unknown substance is detected in a food, a more detailed analysis should be done to determine if allergens or toxins are present.
Consumer groups want the Food and Drug Administration to require mandatory, transparent reviews and appropriate labeling to shore up public confidence before biotechnology suffers a backlash as people become more aware of GE food.
To move forward and win widespread acceptance, supporters and critics of food biotechnology agree GE producers also must give consumers reasons to buy their products, such as improved taste and nutrition over traditionally grown food.
About 75 percent of processed foods sold in grocery stores today contains GE ingredients, because corn and soy -- the two most commonly engineered crops -- are used so frequently in processed foods, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America. The two other main GE crops are canola and cotton.
Foreign genes have been inserted in GE crops to express desirable characteristics such as pest resistance. One of the most common and well-known GE crops is called Bt corn, which produces insect toxin with a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. GE crops engineered to resist pests require fewer pesticide applications.
Thomas Hoban, professor of sociology and food science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, has studied consumer perceptions of GE food for 15 years and said the industry sector is at an important junction.
"It's sort of a critical time right now in the U.S. for this whole industry, because so far there's nothing really in it for the food industry -- there's no real advantage in it for the consumer other than, 'Hey guess what? We don't use pesticides,'" Hoban told UPI.
He said acceptance of GE food in the United States seems to be following the trend established in the European Union, where people consistently have opposed it, and the situation could come to a head as food products from transgenic -- genetically engineered -- and cloned animals become more visible.
Hoban cited the boom in organic foods and high consumer support for mandatory safety review and labeling. Some counties in California have banned growing GE crops and others have bans up for vote in November elections.
Consumer awareness of biotechnology has remained limited for at least seven years -- it was in 1997 the International Food Information Council in Washington began conducting surveys.
Data from IFIC -- which is supported by the food, beverage and agricultural industries -- and other consumer polls show about 40 percent of people have heard "a lot" or "some" about biotechnology, while the other 60 percent say they have heard "a little" or "nothing at all."
About two-thirds of consumers do not know supermarkets already offer GE food and, according to surveys in 2001 and 2003 by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology -- an independent biotechnology group -- only one in five people thinks he or she has eaten a genetically modified product.
IFIC's 2004 survey shows steady consumer acceptance of biotechnology, but critics use the same data to claim support is declining.
In IFIC's survey, unprompted consumers hardly mentioned GE food as something they avoided. Few deemed it a food safety concern or said they would like to see it labeled. The data also found, from 1997 to 2004, a consumer's likelihood of buying produce "modified by biotechnology" to taste better or fresher remained steady at around 55 percent and biotech food protected from insect damage dropped from 77 percent to 66 percent.
The number of people who support the FDA's voluntary labeling policy for GE food saw the biggest decline, from 78 percent to 53 percent.
Cheryl Toner, IFIC director of health communications, said the data demonstrate steady rates of consumer acceptance and, except for the issue of FDA's labeling, drops in the statistics occurred in 1999 and the numbers have remained steady majorities since.
"When you look at data over time, there is not a high level of awareness or concern, particularly on an open-ended basis," Toner told UPI.
Hoban said the numbers show support for GE food has dropped since biotechnology's early days, when people trusted it because they trusted government regulation.
"(Mandatory pre-market notification to the FDA) was the one thing that everyone could agree on as a minimum," Hoban said.
The FDA has determined GE food is substantially equivalent to conventional food, so companies do not need to notify the agency or undergo its safety reviews before marketing GE crops. Companies also are not required to label GE food as such.
Hoban and veteran consumer advocate Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, said IFIC's questions are written to lend themselves to more positive responses. The questions ask about consumer willingness to buy GE foods based on benefits rather than about any concerns that must be addressed, Foreman said.
The Pew Initiative data show a more even split on consumer acceptance, with about 40 percent of consumers saying they are very likely or somewhat likely to eat genetically modified food and about 50 percent saying they are not too likely or not at all likely to do so.
Genetically modified food includes GE food and is a term that has been used interchangeably with it.
Doug Powell, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario and scientific director of its Food Safety Network, said consumers demonstrate their lack of concern about GE food by their buying habits. In an ongoing study of consumer behavior since 1999, Powell collaborated with a farmer in the province to sell labeled, GE corn and potatoes next to conventional versions at equal prices.
Powell tracked food sales to find that, contrary to his expectations, GE food outsold conventional food three to two the first year, two to one the second year and five to one the third year. Consumer interviews revealed very few people had serious opinions about GE food and most were "just curious," Powell said.
"To be honest, it became boring and a non-issue," Powell told UPI. "(Consumers) are out doing grocery shopping, not doing homework."
Powell said consumers buy GE food because it fulfills their primary needs of being safe and affordable.
"Proof is in the pudding in the fact that American consumers at the grocery stores have not rejected (genetically engineered food)," Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, told UPI.
Although the general consumer does not seem to have serious concerns with GE food, interviews of 50 consumers by UPI at a smattering of mainstream and organic grocery stores in the Washington area showed those who do care, care deeply and feel at a loss about their choice.
Although degrees of awareness and ideas of what GM food are varied, consumers erred on the side of caution in replying whether they had any concerns about GM food. Two-thirds of those who felt they had heard enough about GE food to comment said they had concerns, although most of those who both knew about GE food and had concerns were customers in natural or organic food stores.
Organic food store customers voiced more heated opposition to GE food and had more concerns about the politics of pushing GE food on other countries and putting GE food into the U.S. market without consent and proper labeling. One factor of food certified organic is it is not genetically engineered.
Most of those who voiced concern still said they did not do anything differently as a result of those concerns nor did they avoid GM food. Many said there really was nothing they could do, because they thought they had no way of being sure what food is genetically engineered.
Erin Flynn, a government worker from Rockville, Md., shopping at a Whole Foods Market on a Sunday afternoon, expressed such uncertainty. Picking up a box of organic spinach and questioning whether it was genetically engineered, Flynn noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal and said she would assume this spinach was not genetically engineered but otherwise would assume any food not labeled organic is genetically engineered.
"People should be able to know what goes into their body," Flynn told UPI.
Regardless of whether or not consumers trust the safety of biotech food, most say GE food should be labeled so they can make an informed choice.
That is the position of Whole Foods Market, a leading niche grocery chain for natural and organic foods, which has eliminated GE food from all of its store brands in response to consumer demand.
Margaret Wittenberg, the company's vice president of governmental and public affairs, said Whole Foods goes to great lengths to make their food GE-free, working with producers and testing source ingredients and final products.
"We wanted to give our customers who are concerned about genetic engineering a choice, an option," Wittenberg told UPI.
Consumer advocates think the food industry ultimately has the power to determine the fate of GE food. If companies fear consumers will reject GE food, they will not risk keeping it on their shelves, Hoban said.
Some U.S. manufacturers already avoid labeling GE food out of fear of negative reaction, even as they take pains to eliminate GE ingredients in overseas products.
Hoban and Foreman are vocal critics of GE food, but said they are not opposed to biotechnology. Rather they question its viability as it is now and demand more choice and information so consumers do not feel they have been deceived.
"I think all may not be lost yet but we're very close to losing any chance of having better products because the public would rather not have GM anything, and if that happens, then ... it will be because (the biotechnology industry) spit in their food," Foreman told UPI.
Elizabeth Suh was a summer intern for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2004 by United Press International.