Prepared Testimony of David B. Schmidt, President and CEO
International Food Information Council
Hearing on the Costs and Impacts of Mandatory Biotechnology Labeling Laws
U.S. House Committee on Agriculture
March 24, 2015
Our mission is to communicate science-based information on food safety and nutrition issues to health professionals, journalists, educators and government officials. We are fortunate to receive support for our programs from leading food, beverage and agricultural companies, but I must clarify that we don’t represent those industries.
Thank you for inviting me to speak today regarding U.S. consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology and related aspects, such as labeling.
Last year, IFIC conducted the 2014 Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey. It was our 16th such survey since 1997, and it has offered trended US consumer insights on plant and animal biotechnology and labeling longer than any publicly available data.
The 2014 IFIC Food Technology Survey polled 1,000 adults who are reflective of the U.S. population, according to the US Census Bureau, and had just a 3 percent margin of error.
Our survey begins with open-ended questions, which are more reliable when it comes to taking the real pulse of consumers than surveys with a small number of carefully worded questions designed to provoke concerns.
We believe this technique yields a more accurate view of what is most important to Americans. When it comes to food labels, the results show that biotechnology, or even “GMOs,” is not a top-of-mind concern for the vast majority of consumers.
Following the open-ended questions, we get more specific about biotechnology and genetic engineering, but please note that we do not use the term “GMO” for two major reasons:
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has provided labeling guidance to industry, reaffirmed as recently as April 2013, that the scientifically accurate terms are “bioengineered,” “genetically engineered,” or “foods produced using biotechnology.” Their analysis considers the term “genetically modified organism” or “GMO” as potentially misleading to consumers, because it is a distinction without a difference. Humans have been genetically modifying crops and animals for tens of thousands of years, but through far less precise or efficient methods than we enjoy today.
- Our own consumer research since the early 1990s has found “GMO” to be off-putting at best or even frightening to many consumers. And unfortunately in today’s marketplace, it is used as something to avoid and a pejorative, rather than a way to inform consumers.
And now to the survey itself, and I would note that this is the precise order in which the questions were posed.
Foods Avoided and Food Label Information
We first asked if people were avoiding any particular foods or ingredients in their diet. [[Slide 4]] Only 2 percent of total respondents mentioned biotech food—or even similar terms like the aforementioned “GMOs.”
Then we asked them if they could think of any information that currently isn’t on food labels but should be. [[Slide 5]] Three-quarters said “no.” Out of the total sample, just 4 percent said that labels should carry information about genetic engineering or related terms. This is a number that has barely budged over the history of our survey.
Next was the topic of food safety. [[Slide 6]] Two-thirds of Americans said they were confident in the safety of the food supply. Only 13 percent said they’re not confident, while 20 percent were neutral.
[[Slide 7]] When we asked people about their specific food safety concerns, “biotech” or any related term was far down the list at 7 percent.
Conversely, the food safety threats that most concern consumers, both today and in past surveys, revolve around diseases and contamination, along with food handling and preparation—both of which were mentioned by 18 percent of respondents.
General Impressions of Food Biotechnology
[[Slide 8]] When we asked the respondents to offer their impressions of food biotechnology (before mentioning any benefits), there was an almost even split between 28 percent who were favorable to the technology and 29 percent who were unfavorable. More than four in 10 were either neutral or didn’t know enough to offer a response.
The 2014 IFIC Food Technology Survey then asked about which sources of information on food biotechnology consumers trust most. [[Slide 9]]
Health organizations, cited by 50 percent of respondents ranked first, followed by Federal government agencies and health professionals, at 45 percent each.
Farmers rated highly for 39 percent of respondents, while scientists were 33 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum, journalists, bloggers, and celebrities were trusted by consumers only in the single digits.
Benefits of Food Biotechnology
At this point, we focused on attitudes toward particular benefits of food biotechnology. [[Slide 10]] When consumers became aware that some products on the market or in the pipeline offered nutrition and health-related benefits, they were overwhelmingly positive.
Referring back to my point on language above, it is not surprising that consumers may shy away when provoked to be concerned about “genetically modified organisms in your food.” But notice the difference in support when we use more informative language to explain some of the benefits of the technology:
- 72 percent said they were likely to purchase products made with oils modified by biotechnology to provide more healthful fats.
- 69 percent were likely to buy such products if they were modified to reduce the potential for carcinogens—the same number who would buy products if they were modified to be protected from insect damage and to require fewer pesticide applications.
- 69 percent also said they would buy bread, crackers, cookies, cereals, or pasta made with flour modified to use less land, water, and/or pesticides.
Current FDA Labeling Policy
[[Slide 11]] Next, we returned to labeling issues and tried to get at consumers’ attitudes another way, by asking whether people favored the current FDA policy regarding foods produced using biotechnology. We told them the policy requires special labeling “only when biotechnology’s use substantially changes the food’s nutritional content, or when a potential safety issue such as a food allergen is identified. Otherwise, special labeling is not required.”
Sixty-three percent of respondents supported the current FDA policy, while 19 percent opposed it. In fact, every survey we have conducted since 1997 has found a strong majority of Americans support this FDA labeling policy.
Consumers’ Favored Uses
When we looked more generally at the most favored uses of food biotechnology, reducing pesticide applications topped the list, followed by keeping food prices stable, and helping feed undernourished people around the world. [[Slide 12]]
Mr. Chairman, in closing, let me emphasize that in our nearly two decades of consumer research, we’ve learned that consumers are supportive of the many benefits of food and agricultural biotechnology when clearly articulated.
The food label is not a playground for every bit of information someone might want to know. We rely on the FDA to ensure that the precious real estate available on a food label is reserved for important health, ingredient, and nutrition information, and it is clear that a strong majority of Americans have confidence in the FDA’s labeling policy for foods produced using biotechnology.
Thank you once again for this opportunity.