October 5, 1999
PRINCETON, NJ -- U.S. public concern about genetically modified foods barely registers a ripple in a new Gallup Poll survey. While Europe is reportedly in an uproar over biotechnology-related food safety and environmental concerns -- fraught with boycotts, vandalism, and charges of "Frankenfood"-- only 10% of Americans report having heard "a great deal" about the issue and just one-quarter, 27%, currently believe it poses a serious health hazard to consumers.
The biotech controversy focuses on concerns that specialized strains of corn, soybeans and other agricultural products may not be safe for human consumption when they utilize genetic manipulation rather than traditional cross-pollination methods. The debate encompasses food-testing issues that could eventually test the trust Americans have in the United States Food and Drug Administration's ability to guarantee the safety of the food supply.
According to the September 23-26 Gallup survey, Americans today seem quite relaxed about food safety issues. Without reference to any specific hazard, 80% say they feel confident that the food available in most grocery stores is safe to eat; 69% feel confident in the safety of restaurant food. This conviction stands in stark contrast to the situation in Europe, where consumer concerns and boycotts have forced a mounting number of food producers and grocery chains to take a "biotech-free" pledge.
Slim Majority Backs Biotech Foods
When asked specifically about the use of biotechnology in food production, Americans express a fair amount of uncertainty, but nevertheless come down on the side of biotechnology. Only 27% of the U.S. public currently believe biotechnology poses a serious health hazard to consumers; 53% think it does not pose a hazard, and the rest, 20%, are unsure. These levels of doubt and concern are reflected in the public's responses to an additional question -- one that measures overall support for the use of biotechnology in food production. A bare majority of Americans, 51%, say they support such a use of biotechnology, while 41% are opposed.
Even though Americans' overall reaction favors the biotech industry, the Gallup survey -- which allowed respondents to register their intensity of feeling on the issue -- reveals that its harshest critics outnumber its fervent advocates by close to two-to-one. Overall, 9% of Americans strongly support biotech methods, 42% say they moderately support them, 25% moderately oppose them and 16% strongly oppose them.
The strongest opposition to biotechnology is levied by lower-income and less-educated Americans, while those with college degrees and high incomes are most likely to be strong supporters. For instance, 21% of those with no college experience strongly oppose the technology, compared with only 8% of those with a college or postgraduate degree.
Few Paying Close Attention
Low public awareness of the biotech issue in the U.S. could be one explanation for Americans' widespread confidence in the food supply. Only 10% of those surveyed in the September 23-26 poll claim to have heard "a great deal" about the issue -- defined in the survey as new scientific techniques such as genetic engineering and genetic modification for producing food and medicine. Another 40% of Americans say they have heard or read "some" while half indicate they have heard little to nothing about it.
However, at this early stage of public awareness, those most familiar with the issue are also the most supportive. Two-thirds of those who have heard a great deal of information about biotechnology, 66%, say they support its use in food production, compared to 63% among those who have heard "some" information, 42% of those who have heard "not much" and 30% of those who have heard nothing.
Widespread Faith in the FDA
Another potentially important factor in Americans' confidence in the safety of the food on their grocery store shelves is their basic confidence in federal oversight. Fifteen percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in the federal government to "ensure the safety of the food supply," and an additional 61% have a fair amount of confidence. Just one-quarter express low confidence, including 19% who have "not much" confidence and another 5% who express no confidence at all.
One challenge that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may soon face is whether to require special labeling for products that include genetically modified food. Because biotech products enter foods through direct sources such as soy, and indirect sources such as grain feed for cattle, labeling of foods may require separate food distribution tracks. Some industry experts say this may ultimately raise consumer costs. Still, despite the low level of concern about potential biotech hazards, two-thirds of Americans currently say they would be willing to pay more in order to require such labeling.
The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,039 adults, 18 years and older, conducted September 23-26, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
Do you feel confident or not confident that the food available at most grocery stores is safe to eat?
Do you feel confident or not confident that the food served at most restaurants is safe to eat?
How much confidence do you have in the federal government to ensure the safety of the food supply in the U.S., would you say you have -- a great deal, a fair amount, not much, or none at all?
A great deal 15%
As you may know, some food products and medicines are being developed using new scientific techniques. The general area is called "biotechnology" and includes tools such as genetic engineering and genetic modification of food. How much have you heard or read about this issue -- a great deal, some, not much or nothing at all?
A great deal 10%
Overall would you say you strongly support, moderately support, moderately oppose, or strongly oppose the use of biotechnology in agriculture and food production?
Strongly support 9%
Some people say that all food should be labeled by the manufacturer to indicate whether the food contains products which have been produced using biotechnology. However, such labeling would require special handling that would raise the price of food. Would you, personally, be willing to pay more for your food in order to have new labels that would indicate the presence of foods produced using biotechnology?
From what you know or have heard, do you believe that foods that have been produced using biotechnology pose a serious health hazard to consumers, or not?
* less than 0.5%
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Last Updated on 10/15/99
By Karen Lutz