The United States and several other countries are currently debating whether to require food
labels to disclose the presence of ingredients that were developed using genetic engineering. To help
inform that debate, in April 2001, the Center for Science in the Public Interest ("CSPI") commissioned
an opinion poll of 1,017 American adults. Respondents were asked questions about what information
should be provided on food labels and how they might react to various labels statements. Consistent
with previous surveys, this poll found that 62% to 70% of respondents desire labeling of genetically
engineered ("GE") food. The survey found that most Americans also desire labeling for many other
currently unlabeled food processes, such as whether crops were sprayed with pesticides (76%) or
imported (56%). The desire for labeling of GE foods, however, was strong for a modest percentage of
respondents. Seventeen percent of those surveyed picked GE food labeling (out of four choices) as
their top priority, and only 28% of respondents would want GE labeling if it added $50 or more per
year (about 1%) to their familys food bill.
The survey found that consumers attitudes and purchasing behavior would be affected by GE
food labels. About 30% of consumers stated that GE-labeled foods were "not as safe" as or were
"worse" than identical foods without such label information. In addition, 40% to 43% of those
surveyed would buy products labeled "genetically engineered," while 52% of consumers would choose
a product labeled "does not contain genetically engineered ingredients" over a product labeled that it
does "contain" such ingredients. In other words, the poll indicates that many consumers would favor
non-GE foods because straightforward label statements about GE or non-GE implies to them that non-GE foods are better and safer than comparable GE foods, even though most scientists and the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration say that currently marketed bioengineered foods are just as safe as other
Agricultural biotechnology and GE foods are controversial issues, with concerns ranging from
health to ecological disturbances to corporate power. One of the most contentious issues is labeling of
GE foods, with the U.S. biotechnology and food industries opposing it and many nonprofit groups
critical of agricultural biotechnology supporting it. The European Union, Japan, Australia, New
Zealand, and several other nations require or plan to require foods containing more than insignificant
amounts of GE ingredients to be labeled. Moreover, polls of American adults have found that a
majority of respondents say they would like GE foods to be labeled.
CSPI is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that has worked for three decades on food
safety, nutrition, and other issues. CSPI is supported by foundation grants and the more than 900,000
subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter; it does not accept industry or government funding.
CSPI is well-known for its campaign to obtain Nutrition Facts labels, opposition to the food
additive olestra, studies on the nutritional value of restaurant foods, and opposition to misleading
food labeling and advertising.
Recently, CSPI started a Project on Biotechnology. CSPI recognizes benefits from
biotechnology, but has called for stricter regulation to ensure safety and bolster public
confidence. To better understand public attitudes regarding the effects of labeling of GE foods,
CSPI commissioned an opinion poll to explore labeling more thoroughly than several previous
polls. The telephone poll, conducted by Bruskin Research (Edison, New Jersey), was a
nationally random sample of 1,017 adults and was conducted from March 30 to April 1, 2001.
SUMMARY OF SURVEY RESULTS
Consumer attitudes regarding the labeling of foods produced with GE and
Many consumers desire information on food labels about how foods and their ingredients
were produced. A strong majority wanted foods containing GE ingredients to be labeled, 62% in
one question (Question #2) and 70% in another (Question #3). To put those response rates in a
larger context, the survey asked about the labeling of other technologies. Seventy six percent of
consumers wanted labeling for crops grown using pesticides (Question #3), 65% for crops grown
using plant hormones (Question #3), and 56% for crops that were imported (Question #2).
Remarkably, 40% of respondents said that they would like products containing cross-bred corn to
be labeled (Question #3). Cross-breeding of corn (and every other crop), of course, has been
used to improve corn for decades and would have to be listed on every product containing corn.
Those results indicate that many consumers would like more information about how their food is
being produced be it through biotechnology, pesticides, importation, or even traditional
breeding. Genetic engineering is one of several processes that many consumers say they would
want to know about. One explanation might be that consumers, few of whom have ever lived on
farms, want labeling for any process with which they are not intimately familiar. The public
needs to be better educated about where food comes from, whether or not foods are labeled with
When asked if they could choose only one piece of information (out of four choices
offered) to add to a label, 17% of respondents said they would add information indicating that a
food was genetically engineered (Question #1). In contrast, 31% of consumers would add
information about whether the food contained minute quantities of pesticides, and 16% did not
specify any of the four choices offered. That is another indication that labeling of genetically
engineered foods is a high labeling priority for only a small core of people.
Another possible way to measure the strength of a persons desire for labeling is to
determine how much a person would be willing to pay for that information. Indeed, the U.S.
Department of Agriculture has reported that segregating GE and non-GE crops and food
ingredients to allow for accurate labeling would result in higher prices.(1) The survey found that
44% of consumers would pay "nothing" and another 17% would pay $10 per year on top of their
familys current annual food bill for GE food labeling. Only 28% were willing to pay $50 or
more (Question #12). The average family of 3.16 people spends approximately $5700 per year
on food.(2) Thus, only 28% of consumers were willing to increase their average annual food bill
by 0.9% to obtain information about GE-ingredients. More significantly, of the persons who said
that their highest labeling priority was genetic engineering (the 17% from Question #1), 50% of
those people would pay nothing or $10 per year for that labeling. Similarly, of the people who
believed that labeling genetically engineered foods should be required (the 62% from Question
#2), 56% would pay nothing or $10 per year for that labeling. Although as many as two-thirds of
consumers may desire labeling of GE foods, few appear willing to pay more than a small amount
for that information. Many people who want GE-labeling, however, may feel strongly that they
should not be the party who pays for the costs of labeling. If GE-labeling were required,
consumers might or might not have to pay any additional costs for GE labeling, depending on
how much of any labeling costs were passed on to the consumer.
CSPIs survey found that if labeling is required, which foods should be labeled depends
considerably on how much of the engineered ingredients are in a given food (Question #11).
When asked which foods should be labeled as "genetically engineered," 61% agreed that a whole
food, such as a tomato, should be labeled, and 53% said that a processed food with a major
ingredient (such as Wheaties made with GE wheat) should be labeled. 42% agreed that a multi-ingredient food (such as a frozen dinner) with a minor ingredient from a GE crop (such as corn
starch) and only 38% agreed that a highly processed foods, such as soybean oil, should be
labeled. Thus, the desire for labeling is strongest for whole GE foods and decreases significantly
if the food contains either none or only small amounts of a genetically engineered ingredient. As
might be expected, higher percentages of consumers for whom labeling of GE foods was their
first labeling priority wanted labeling of processed foods with minor GE ingredients or without
any engineered molecules than the survey group as a whole (54% versus 42% and 53% versus
38% respectively). Among the people who answered in Question #2 that they wanted labeling of
GE foods, however, only 74% said that a tomato should be labeled and only 47% said that soy oil
should be labeled. Those inconsistent answers may be an indication that for some people in
favor of GE-labeling, the expressed desire for labeling is not strongly held. The inconsistency
may also be due to the particular wording of the different questions.
How labeling might affect consumer attitudes and behavior
The CSPI survey explored how label statements indicating the presence or absence of GE
ingredients might affect consumer attitudes and behavior. When asked whether corn flakes with
a GE label were better than, worse than, or the same as corn flakes without such a label, 30%
stated that the GE-labeled food was worse and only 12% stated that it was better (42% stated that
it was the same) (Question #9). Conversely, when comparing corn flakes labeled that they did
not contain GE and corn flakes without such a label, 35% stated that the non-GE product was
better and only 8% considered it to be worse (42% stated they were the same) (Question #8).
Thus, 77% of consumers believe that foods without GE ingredients are either the same as or
better than the same products without such a label. The survey also found that 40% of the people
who said that foods labeled "made from genetically engineered corn" were better than or the
same as foods not labeled (Question #9) also answered that they would not buy genetically
engineered fruits or vegetables (Question #4). Therefore, a percentage of consumers who think
GE foods are the same as or better than unlabeled foods still would not buy a labeled GE food.
When asked whether foods labeled as containing GE ingredients were just as safe as, not
as safe as, or safer than similar products without such a label, about 30% of consumers said that
the labeled product was not as safe. Only 7% said that the GE-labeled product was safer (about
33% said the labeled product was just as safe) (Question #10). Thus, in addition to perceiving
that GE-labeled foods are not as good as foods without such a label, about one-third of
consumers also perceives that GE foods are not as safe as foods without such a designation.
The actual language used to label a GE food could affect consumers perceptions of food
safety. However, the survey found no significant difference between the perceived safety of
products labeled as containing "genetically engineered wheat" and labeled "wheat developed
with biotechnology" (Question #10). In both those cases, 6% to 7% of respondents said the food
was safer and about 30% said the GE-labeled food was not as safe as an unlabeled version of the
same food, while about 33% said the foods were the same. When asked about labels stating that
the purpose of the genetic engineering is to reduce pesticide use, 21% of consumers answered
that the food was "safer," a three-fold increase from a label that only stated "contains genetically
engineered wheat." However, the same percentage of consumers (28%) still found the food with
the label stating "reduces pesticide use" to be "not as safe." Therefore, consumers do not
perceive any difference between the terms "genetic engineering" and "biotechnology," but an
explanation of a benefit from the genetically engineered food affects some consumers.
Finally, the survey asked respondents about purchasing GE-foods. When consumers were
asked if they would buy foods labeled as being from crops made with genetic engineering, only
40% to 43% said they would buy those foods (Questions #4 and 5). At the same time, 40% to
44% of consumers stated that they would buy foods labeled as being from crops made with cross-bred corn. When asked to choose between two otherwise identical foods where one is labeled
that it contains GE ingredients and the other is labeled that it does not contain GE ingredients,
52% of consumers said they would buy the non-GE food, whereas only 8% would buy the GE
labeled food (37% did not care which food they brought) (Question #7). Thus, there is a
preference among consumers for foods that are labeled that they do not contain GE ingredients,
which is consistent with how consumers would react to labels indicating that foods do or do not
contain GE ingredients.
Possible limitations of the survey results
Although this survey provides valuable information about consumers attitudes and
behavior regarding food labels indicating the presence or absence of genetically engineered
ingredients, the responses may have been affected by several factors beyond the surveys control.
The extent of recent news coverage, the type (size, location and wording) of labeling that might
be employed, and many other factors might affect how a person responds to specific questions.
That is particularly the case when most respondents (55%) are not very or not at all familiar with
the subject matter. In a telephone survey, individuals not familiar with biotechnology are asked
to make spur-of-the-moment decisions about a complex subject that they may never have thought
about previously. In addition, telephone polls reflect a persons answer to the particular question
asked, which may or may not be the same as that persons buying behavior at the supermarket.
For example, consumers may answer a generic question one way but act much differently when
they consider purchasing a product for which they have brand loyalty. Similarly, although
information may be on a label, a consumer may not read the information before purchasing the
product. Thus, many consumers may continue to buy exactly what they have always purchased
in the past, whether or not it contains GE ingredients.
The survey measured consumers views on affirmative labeling for GE ingredients but
did not attempt to analyze consumers attitudes concerning lack of labeling of foods containing
GE-ingredients, as is now the case. Consumers might express strong feelings about such
products. Also, the survey did not attempt to explain inconsistencies between different answers
to similar questions. For example, 15% of the people who said in response to Question #2 that
they wanted labeling for GE-foods did not answer that any of the foods in question #11 should be
labeled. For all those reasons, further polling and focus groups would be valuable in increasing
understanding of consumers knowledge, attitudes, and behavior regarding the labeling of foods
for the presence or absence of genetically engineered ingredients.
When asked about adding information to food labels, a majority of respondents to CSPIs
survey say they want information about numerous matters, not just whether a food was developed
with genetic engineering. A small core of consumers considers information about GE foods to
be highly important, but most consumers, including a majority of those for whom GE labeling is
a high priority, are not willing to pay very much for that information. These results indicate that
mandatory labeling would be useful to some people and that people need to be better educated
about where food comes from. It is important that policy makers who are considering requiring
GE labeling also consider the costs that would be borne by industry and consumers.
The survey found that approximately 40% of consumers believe that GE-related labeling
reflects upon the quality and safety of the food, even though many scientists and regulatory
agencies have found no such differences for current products. Therefore, policy makers would
have to identify a labeling system, including language, prominence, and disclaimers, that would
be informative to consumers but not lead them to think that non-GE foods are safer than other
foods, and that GE-containing foods are less safe than non-GE foods, when that is not the case.