QA recent NY Times poll shows that 93 percent of Americans support GMO labeling. You say that you "are not...against labeling," but that you "cannot support...a label that conveys to consumers that foods made from the farmers’ crops grown with our seeds

A recent NY Times poll shows that 93 percent of Americans support GMO labeling. You say that you "are not...against labeling," but that you "cannot support...a label that conveys to consumers that foods made from the farmers’ crops grown with our seeds are less safe, less nutritious or somehow different from conventional or organic food." Therefore, would you accept a requirement that foods containing GMO ingredients be labeled as such, along with a statement such as: "the FDA has determined that there is no significant difference between GMO foods and their conventional counterparts"? By supporting such a requirement, presumably you could save millions of PR dollars fighting public opinion. At the same time, you could show consumers that you respect their right to know, that the FDA considers GMOs to be safe, and that you have nothing to hide.

AExpert Answer

Surveys can be pretty tricky things because the response you receive often depends on how you ask the question―if it's open-ended or contains leading words or statements. A number of polls have been conducted in recent years claiming that upwards of 80 percent or 90 percent of respondents want GMO labeling. What's interesting to me, though, is that I've been searching for the actual surveys to see how the questions were asked, and I can't find them.  This makes me skeptical about the validity of the results, no matter how big or small the sample size or margin of error.  If you happen to locate those survey questions, let me know! 


Since we can't evaluate how those questions were asked, here are a couple of other surveys for your consideration.  (Yes, I see the irony!)  First, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) conducts a biennial survey on Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology, including genetic engineering.  According to the survey's 2012 results, less than one percent of the total number surveyed identified GMO labeling as a priority.


Here are the questions IFIC asked:   


Q9. Can you think of any information that is not currently included on food labels that you would like to see on food labels?


Twenty-four percent of those surveyed said yes.


Q10. [IF YES] What types of information would that be?


Three percent said GM when asked to provide the type of information they want to see.


This open-ended approach is quite different than posing an aided question to someone about whether or not that person wants a GMO label. In 2013, Rutgers University conducted a survey about consumers' awareness and perception of GMOs that illustrates this point. According to an article about the report:


"[D]etermining what labeling information they value is not a straightforward task. Whether consumers say they want GM food labels depends on how you ask the question, so we asked about it in several ways.


"Before [we introduced] the idea of GM foods, the survey participants were asked simply, 'What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already on there?' In response, only seven percent raised GMO labeling on their own. A similar number (six percent) said they wanted more information about where the food product was grown or processed. In contrast, when asked directly whether GM foods should be required to be labeled, 73 percent said yes.


"The survey asked respondents to rate the importance of various kinds of information on food labels. Fifty-nine percent said that it was very or extremely important to have information about whether the product contains GM ingredients on a label. This is about the same number who indicated that it was similarly important to have information about whether the product was grown using hormones (63 percent), pesticides (62 percent), antibiotics (61 percent), whether it was grown or raised in the United States (60 percent) and whether the product contains allergens (59 percent).”


Essentially, when presented with a list of topics and asked if they want more information, people will almost always say yes.  I certainly would.  Why not?

No matter how the question is asked, though, a percentage of consumers would like to see a GMO label of some type.  Your labeling suggestion is an interesting one and deserves consideration.  It's certainly more expansive than the ambiguous “May Contain GMOs” labels that have been proposed in various venues.  Unless and until that change is made in federal law, though, those consumers who are interested in avoiding GM food products should look for a "Non-GM" or "USDA Certified Organic" label. 

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