Shocking survey results show U.S. consumers unaware of GM issues (19/9/2003)

So much for all the stuff about how American consumers are happily eating GM foods. Most don't know they're eating them and most (89%) don't know the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not safety testing them. In reality, 'Not only is the FDA not safety-testing these products, the agency has determined they don't even need to be notified that a new genetically engineered food is going to be consumed by millions of people.'
News Update From The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods

Dear News Update Subscribers,

The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology has released the results of a new survey on public sentiments about genetically engineered foods.

Although the Pew Initiative seems to downplay the significance of the results, they are really quite shocking.

Americans are clearly not aware of the extent genetically engineered foods have invaded the U.S. food supply. Only 24% of Americans believe they have eaten genetically engineered foods, while 58% say they have not. Actually, nearly all Americans have eaten genetically engineered foods since 70-75% of all processed foods contain soy or corn that has been genetically engineered.

Further, Americans appear to be unaware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not safety testing genetically engineered foods. According to the Pew Initiative survey, eighty-nine percent (89%) of Americans agree with the statement "Companies should be required to submit safety data to the Food and Drug Administration for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines it is safe."

In reality, under the current regulations, biotech companies are not even required to notify the FDA they are bringing a new product to market. The very companies with the financial interest in the products are the ones determining the safety. Not only is the FDA not safety-testing these products, the agency has determined they don't even need to be notified that a new genetically engineered food is going to be consumed by millions of people.

Most Americans would probably be quite upset if they really understood how irresponsible the FDA has been when it comes to protecting the public from the possible dangers associated with genetically engineered foods.

One of The Campaign's primary goals in our effort to pass the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act into law will be to get hearings in the U.S. Congress by the committees that oversee the FDA. We intend to shine a bright light on the potential dangers posed to the American public from the lack of oversight by the FDA on genetically engineered foods. In October, we will issue an ACTION ALERT that will begin a major push for these congressional committee oversight hearings.

Posted below are three articles. The first is a press release from the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology about the new survey. The second article is from USA Today titled "Americans are iffy on genetically modified foods." The third article is from the Sacramento Bee titled "Confusion, ignorance about biotech food."

If you would like to read the entire survey, here is a link to a PDF version:

Craig Winters
Executive Director
The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods

The Campaign
PO Box 55699
Seattle, WA 98155
Tel: 425-771-4049
Fax: 603-825-5841
E-mail: mailto:[email protected]
Web Site: http://www.thecampaign.org

Mission Statement: "To create a national grassroots consumer campaign for the purpose of lobbying Congress and the President to pass legislation that will require the labeling of genetically engineered foods in the United States."


Americans' Knowledge of Genetically Modified Foods Remains Low and Opinions On Safety Still Split
For Immediate Release: September 18, 2003
Contact: Kimberly Brooks or Dan DiFonzo
202-347-9044 ext. 230 or 231
[email protected]
[email protected]
New Poll Confirms Findings of Two Years Ago, But Reveals FDA Key to Acceptance; Discomfort with Shift from Plants To Animals Apparent

Washington, DC - Americans' knowledge of genetically modified (GM) foods remains low and their opinions about its safety are just as divided as they were two years ago, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.  The survey also shows that knowing FDA reviewed and approved a GM product can increase public confidence and that public support for GM products decreases as uses of the technology shift from plants to animals.

Using data from a similar survey released by the Pew Initiative in March 2001 for tracking purposes, the survey released today suggests:

* Americans' knowledge about GM foods remains low - even as GM technology is increasingly applied to agriculture.  In 2001, 44% had heard "a great deal" or "some" about genetically modified foods; today, that number is 34%, a 10 point decline.  Similarly, 45% had heard "a great deal" or "some" about biotechnology use in food production; today, that number is 36%, a nine point decline.  Although it has been estimated that 70-75% of processed foods in grocery stores contain GM foods, just 24% of Americans believe they have eaten GM foods while 58% say they have not, suggesting that Americans continue not to recognize the extent to which GM foods are present in foods they eat every day.

* Opposition to GM foods has softened somewhat in the last two years but opinions about safety remain split.  Today, 25% of people polled reported they would support the introduction of GM foods to the U.S. food supply, down only 1 point from 26% in 2001.  At the same time, opposition has declined ten points, from 58% opposed in 2001 to 48% opposed today.  But Americans have essentially the same opinion about the overall safety of GM foods as they did in 2001: 27% of consumers say that GM foods are "basically safe" (down from 29%), while 25% say that they are "basically unsafe" (the same as in 2001).  Taken together, these numbers indicate that the American public continues to have divided opinions about GM foods.

The survey released today also probed topics rarely explored in widely-available opinion polls about agricultural biotechnology, including how Americans feel about the way GM products are regulated in the U.S. and the application of genetic engineering technology to animals.  Findings show:

* Americans oppose a ban on GM foods, but are strongly supportive of a regulatory process that directly involves the FDA.  Sixty-four percent (64%) of Americans disagree with the statement, "genetically modified foods should not be allowed to be sold even if the Food and Drug Administration believes they are safe," but very few believe that GM foods should be allowed to go on the market without FDA review. Eighty-nine percent (89%) of Americans agree with the statement "Companies should be required to submit safety data to the Food and Drug Administration for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines it is safe." Taken together, these statistics demonstrate that consumers want to see that FDA is involved with a genetically modified food product before it is put on the market.

* Americans are far more comfortable with genetic modifications to plants than animals, and are particularly supportive of genetic modifications that improve health.  The majority of people polled (58%) oppose scientific research into genetic modifications of animals.  When asked to rate how "comfortable" they are with genetic modifications of different types of life forms, consumers say they are most comfortable with modifications of plants, followed by genetic modifications of microbes, animals used for food, insects and then animals used for other purposes, such as horses, cats and dogs.  When asked about specific purposes for pursuing genetic modifications, nearly every purpose that involved plants (e.g. reducing the need to use pesticides) was considered a better reason to pursue genetic modifications than those that involved animals  (e.g. produce beef with less fat).

"When it comes to genetically modified products, the U.S. public clearly supports the role of regulatory bodies like the FDA to provide an independent safety approval for new biotechnology food products," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.  "This finding suggests that the actions of government agencies are likely to play an important role in influencing public acceptance of the next generation of agricultural biotechnology products." 

The nationwide survey, conducted August 5-10, 2003 by The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies, consisted of telephone interviews of 1,000 American consumers. The margin of error for this survey is +/- 3.1%. The margin of error is higher for subgroups.  Data from a similar survey, released by the Pew Initiative in March 2001, was used for tracking purposes.

A summary of findings from the survey, as well as the statistical results can be viewed at http://pewagbiotech.org/research/2003update/

Results of the poll released in March 2001 can be viewed at


Americans are iffy on genetically modified foods
By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
Posted 9/17/2003 8:16 PM

Americans still don't know much about genetically modified foods, even though increasing amounts of their food comes from biotech corn and soybeans, according to a poll released today by the non-partisan Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

Support for the introduction of GM foods into the food supply is divided: One-quarter of Americans are in favor and almost half are opposed. But opposition is softening, to 48% from 58% two years ago, when Pew first polled consumers.

Opinions about the safety of GM food haven't budged much. Just above one-quarter of Americans, 27%, say the foods are basically safe, and exactly one-quarter say they're basically unsafe.

This is where knowledge comes in. Just 24% of Americans say they've eaten GM foods, and 58% say they haven't. But the Grocery Manufactures of America says 70% to 80% of processed foods sold in supermarkets contain products made from genetically engineered corn, soybeans or cottonseed oil.

That includes most products sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, which is almost sure to contain at least some genetically modified corn. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures for 2003 show that 40% of the U.S. corn crop was biotech, as were 81% of the soybeans and 73% of the cotton.

But when pollster told those who were surveyed the extent to which GM foods are already on store shelves - and therefore that the respondents probably have been eating them - attitudes changed. After learning that, 44% said GM foods are safe and 20% said they are unsafe.

"For consumers, biotechnology is not a high priority," says Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Knowing that it's on the market and it's regulated, they think, 'We have other things to be concerned about right now.' "

But one of the survey's strongest findings was that people support a more active role by the Food and Drug Administration role to ensure GM food safety. "More than half those surveyed said they'd be more likely to eat GM foods if the FDA had a mandatory regulatory process," says Michael Rodemeyer, Pew executive director.

James Maryanski, the FDA's biotechnology coordinator, says that although companies aren't required to send the FDA safety data on biotech foods, they are required to market safe and wholesome foods. "In other words, they're not able to just do whatever they want."


Confusion, ignorance about biotech food
By Mike Lee -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
September 18, 2003

Even as genetically modified crops continue to spread across the globe, Americans appear to know less about biotech foods than they did two years ago -- and much of what they do "know" is wrong, according to nationwide survey results being released today.

Research for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that even though an estimated three-quarters of processed food on grocery store shelves contains genetically engineered ingredients, only 24 percent of survey respondents believed they had eaten such food. Nearly half opposed introducing biotech foods into the nation's food supply -- something that was done years ago.

"It's obvious that people are confused and many people are troubled about (genetically engineered) foods," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association in Minnesota. "But it's also clear that they are not learning much from the media in their everyday lives."

The survey, conducted in August, also shows that resistance to biotech foods is lessening, but that consumer opinions about the safety of those products remain as deeply divided as they were in Pew's base-line 2001 survey.

Among its clearest conclusions, however, was that consumers want the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take a more active role regulating genetically engineered foods.

About a decade after the first biotech foods were introduced, the industry remains largely self-regulated on questions of food safety. Most consumers don't know anything about government regulation, according to the new survey, but they aren't comfortable with the FDA's voluntary consultation program that allows companies to submit only a research summary.

"A very strong 89 percent of the respondents supported the idea that the FDA should have a mandatory process under which they find the (genetically engineered) foods are safe before they can be marketed," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative, in Washington, D.C.

Those findings were in sync with a report issued last year by the U.S. General Accounting Office, which suggested that the FDA's evaluation process for biotech foods "could be enhanced by randomly verifying the test data" from companies.

Jim Maryanski, biotechnology coordinator for foods at the FDA, declined to discuss the Pew study but characterized the GAO's recommendation as reasonable -- even though his agency has yet to make the changes.

"We are quite confident that the system in place is one that is working very well; that it protects consumers' health," Maryanski said. "Companies ... are continuing to use the system of consultation with the FDA."

The underlying theme of the Pew survey was that the public remains ill-informed about a technology being used to enhance crops on 145 million acres worldwide and one that is being touted as a promising new way to grow lower-cost pharmaceutical compounds in plants.

Knowledge of genetically modified foods actually decreased since 2001; only 34 percent of respondents to this year's poll had heard some or a great deal about the food, compared to 44 percent in the earlier survey.

The Mellman Group, which surveyed 1,000 American consumers, theorized that knowledge about biotech food was higher in 2001 because that survey was conducted right after a widely publicized mistake in which genetically engineered corn called StarLink -- intended only for feed corn -- was mixed into corn products such as taco shells.

"We still have a long way to go on education in science and technology," said Judith Kjelstrom, acting director of the University of California, Davis, biotechnology program.

Kjelstrom said information from the industry appears to be helping reduce negative opinions about genetic engineering.  "It takes people time to get used to new technology," she said, adding that Americans tend to worry about more pressing issues, such as war and the economy, while assuming trusted federal agencies will protect them from dangerous foods.

Corn, soybeans, canola and cotton account for the vast majority of commercialized biotech crops, which are designed to withstand herbicides or resist pests.

Biotech opponents -- a few thousand of whom protested at an international conference on agricultural technology held in Sacramento this summer -- fear that messing around with genes will ultimately hurt human health and the environment.  Nonetheless, opposition to using biotech ingredients in U.S. foods dropped 10 percentage points between the surveys, heartening Lisa J. Dry at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C.

"Technology opponents have worked very hard ... to make people fearful, and they haven't been able to get any traction on that because the science and our experience with these foods don't support their arguments," Dry said.

Tom Hoban, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said he has been urging biotech and food companies to make it clear that genetically engineered foods are already part of our food chain. That, Hoban said, would avoid charges of deception if any future problems arise.

But as long as the industry can avoid another contamination problem such as StarLink, Hoban said the lack of consumer knowledge found in the survey may work well for those companies developing products that target consumers instead of farmers.

Monsanto, for instance, is working on plants high in heart-healthy oils.

"What industry and others have kind of hoped," Hoban said, "is that they could kind of keep genetically engineered foods under the radar screen until there are some consumer benefits."

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