Consumer Perceptions Of Food Technology

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) conducts a survey each year gauging consumer perceptions of food technology. Food Manufacturing spoke with Dave Schmidt, President & CEO of IFIC, to discuss this year’s survey results and their implications for the food industry.

Q: How have consumer perceptions of food technology changed over the years the survey has been administered?

A: Consumer perceptions of food biotechnology have been remarkably stable during the years we’ve been doing the Survey (1997-2010). There have been some subtle changes; for example, a greater percentage of consumers say they would be likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology for specific benefits, such as to taste better or fresher, require fewer pesticide applications and to provide more healthful fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, we have observed a softening of perceptions regarding genomics, a type of animal biotechnology, as well as more favorable perceptions regarding the likelihood to purchase meat, milk and eggs enhanced through genetic engineering since FDA determined they are safe. Support for the FDA labeling policy that does not require special labeling on the use of biotech, but only on the end-product traits, has also been a fairly consistent majority over the years. The minority opposition has actually moved significantly to uncertainty from strong opposition.

Q: Currently, how often is biotechnology used in the food industry, and in what products?

A: Most soy and corn crops in the U.S. are produced through biotechnology. Other foods include canola and cottonseed oil, papaya and squash, which have been made more resistant to a virus that often kills the produce on the vine.

Q: What benefits are currently being provided from biotechnology in food for producers and consumers?

A: Biotechnology contributes to more reliable crops, which leads to more stable pricing, which is passed on to the consumer in the form of cost savings. Farmers, consumers and the environment benefit from reduced fuel and crop protection sprays required for biotech crops. Consumers also benefit from improved taste and nutritional profiles of foods. In the not-too-distant future, consumers will also benefit from vegetable oils that have a more healthful fat profile as a result of biotechnology, including the addition of Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to have benefits for heart health.

Q: According to survey results, the majority of consumers indicated they were confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. Do you think the results would have been different if the survey had been administered after the nationwide egg recall?

A: Over the years there have been a few other food safety incidents, such as the BSE incident, that have impacted consumer confidence ratings in this Survey. This is to be expected; however, these effects are usually temporary and we continue to see strong consumer confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply, consistent with our other consumer surveys.

Q: When participants responded negatively to biotechnology, they often cited they did not have enough information about the topic or that they don’t understand the benefits of the technology. What can food producers do to provide consumers with more knowledge regarding this new food technology?

A: Producers can help by providing customers and consumers with helpful links to credible information. Local universities and organizations such as the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), and IFIC support risk-based science and focus on the end traits versus the technology alone. When you think about it this way, it’s easy to see that the ends justify the means.

Q: Anything else you would like to add regarding the survey or the use of biotechnology in food?

A: We have developed a list of Ten Communication Tenets For Consumer Acceptance of Food Biotechnology, which we’ve learned from years of consumer research (ours and other global research) on this topic:

  1. The purpose for each new product of food biotechnology and its benefits must be explained clearly at the beginning of public discussion.
  2. Biotechnology must be placed in context with the evolution of agricultural practices.
  3. Emphasis should be placed on farmers who plant the seeds that already contain beneficial traits developed through biotechnology.
  4. An accurate, rather than absolute, view of food and environmental safety determinations by regulators should be communicated for each product in each country.
  5. Communications should emphasize the exhaustive research over many years that led to the introduction of each new product of food biotechnology.
  6. Communications should underscore that additional food labeling requirements are necessary when there is a significant change in the composition, nutritional value or introduction of a potential food allergen from a gene transfer.
  7. Government and industry communications on food biotechnology must be consistent in order to earn consumer confidence.
  8. Consumer group activism does not necessarily reflect consumer attitudes, and many consumer groups either support or do not oppose biotechnology.
  9. Multinational approvals on many products of food biotechnology are the result of strong international scientific consensus.
  10. It is important to stress that food biotechnology also provides important benefits in addressing hunger and food security throughout the world.

Interview by Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor