Confusion, ignorance about biotech food

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Thursday, 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."


About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.