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Public knowledge and attitudes
- Food Biotechnology: Benefits and Concerns


Although products derived from agricultural biotechnology are now common in the U.S. food supply, the topic does not appear to be an important issue to most U.S. consumers, and awareness remains moderate according to polls. Trends in consumer awareness and opinions about biotechnology and genetically engineered foods remain a shifting and somewhat controversial area. Polls designed to address similar issues at different times have found different results. Furthermore, such polls are sensitive to the wording and order of the questions. Perhaps the most telling information extracted from consumer polls are the trends over time, i.e., data obtained by asking the same questions after an intervening period of time. Notwithstanding the limitations of the technique, consumer polls remain an important tool in assessing public knowledge and opinion.

Evidently, most Americans are unaware of the extent to which crops derived from biotechnology have entered the marketplace. When consumers were asked how much processed food has genetically modified (GM) ingredients, only 14% responded with the correct answer (over 50% of processed foods have GM ingredients). Similarly, when asked whether or not they have eaten GM foods, 62% said no, they had not, while only 19% said that they had (50Citation ). With more than 60% of processed foods containing GM ingredients, it is highly probable that most people have eaten them at some time (51Citation ).

Even though consumer awareness of biotechnology is moderate, knowledge levels tend to be quite low. Nevertheless, more people are becoming aware of the issue. Between 1992 and 1996 only 34% of those asked said that they had heard either "a lot" or "something" about biotechnology. By 2000–2001 this number increased to 47% (52Citation ,53Citation ).

Despite the controversy over the safety of eating GM foods, most American consumers seem to trust the food supply. When asked their willingness to buy GM potatoes or tomatoes protected from insect damage and requiring fewer pesticides, 74% in 1995 (53Citation ), and 70% in January of 2001 indicated they were willing (52Citation ). It appears that the safety of eating foods derived from biotechnology is not on most people’s minds. When asked an open-ended question regarding what they were most concerned about when it comes to food safety, the majority of consumers stated that they were worried about food handling, bacterial contamination, or pesticide residue issues. Very few people (2%) replied that they were concerned about biotechnology. In fact, when asked, "During the past few months, have you done anything or taken any action because of any concerns you may have about genetically modified foods?" only 5% of the respondents said "yes" (52Citation ).

There is still a great deal of confusion concerning the basic science of genetics and biotechnology. In a survey conducted in 1998, 45% of participants disagreed and one tenth agreed with the statement, "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified ones do." In addition, when presented with the statement, "By eating a genetically modified fruit, a person’s genes could also be changed" only 61% disagreed and 9% agreed (54Citation ). Educating the public on these matters might prove to be a challenge as well. When asked of their trust in biotechnology information sources, 41% stated that they trusted the American Medical Association, 32% said they trusted the Food and Drug Administration, and 4% stated that they trusted activist groups to provide them with truthful information about biotechnology (53Citation ).

Based on perceived consumer concerns, Gerber, Heinz and Frito Lay have made the decision to avoid ingredients that were derived from GM crops (55Citation ). In fact, JR Simplot Co, a supplier of potatoes to fast-food chains, says virtually all it’s customers don’t want GM potatoes (56Citation ). Nevertheless, most food companies are not avoiding GM ingredients for domestic production, and by one estimate 60% of processed foods contain at least one GM ingredient (e.g., GM soy or corn flour; 51Citation ).

Consumer interest is but one of many factors that influences the use of these ingredients in the production, processing, manufacture and distribution of foods and food products. Industry is concerned over the capability and costs to deliver identity- preserved ingredients, the adequacy of testing methodologies for GM constituents, uncertainties in forecasting supply needs, and increased costs due to shortages of available non-GM ingredients. Safety does not appear to be a significant concern because producers and manufacturers rely on the regulatory system in place to ensure the safety of GM products.

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