Biotechnology not a food-safety concern, survey

by Staff
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WASHINGTON ― Mention biotechnology at a neighborhood barbecue and you might fuel a debate. But is the topic really of great concern to consumers? According to a survey commissioned by the International Food Information Council (I.F.I.C.), there was little change in the American public’s perception of food biotechnology ― but those who have an opinion are twice as likely to have favorable as opposed to unfavorable impressions.

"The public’s attitudes about food biotechnology remained constant despite a year of tremendous media attention on food concerns," said David Schmidt, president and chief executive officer of the I.F.I.C.

The national survey represents the 12th time the I.F.I.C. has commissioned a survey on public attitudes about food biotechnology since 1997.

Overall confidence in the food supply remained at a high level with 69% of Americans indicating they were "very" or "somewhat" confident in the food supply compared with 72% last year, the survey revealed. However, the number of Americans selecting "very confident" decreased from 21% in 2006 to 15% this year.

A sizeable number of those surveyed (25%) cited no particular food-safety concern. Of the three-quarters of respondents who listed a specific food-safety concern, disease and contamination topped the list at 38%; however, the biggest increase was in the "source" category, where concern about country of origin caused this category to rise from 6% of those citing a specific concern with the food supply in 2006 to 20% this year.

Handling and preparation decreased as a food-safety concern, cited by 26% of those pointing to a specific concern this year, dropping 9% from last year’s survey.

While the public’s overall favorable impression of plant biotechnology remained little changed in the past year, favorable impressions of animal biotechnology increased to 24% this year from 19% in 2006. Nearly half of Americans (46%) said they were "somewhat" or "very" likely to buy meat, milk and eggs from cloned animals if the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) determined they were safe.

When the phrase "from cloned animals" was replaced with "from animals enhanced through genetic engineering" the number of Americans who were "very" or "somewhat" likely to buy these food products jumped to 61%. Both of these figures show an increase from the 2006 survey.

Increased awareness of potential positive impacts of animal biotechnology continues to correlate with increased support among consumers. Two-thirds of consumers (66%) said they had a positive impression of animal biotechnology when informed that "animal biotechnology may improve the quality and safety of food," up from 59% in 2006. More than half of Americans (53%) reacted positively to the statement "animal biotechnology can increase farm efficiency," up from 36% in 2005 and 47% in 2006.

Satisfaction with current information on food labels remained high in 2007. Only 16% of consumers mentioned information they felt was missing, with less than 1% specifically mentioning biotechnology.

The F.D.A. requires special labeling only when the use of biotechnology introduces an allergen, or when it substantially changes the food’s nutritional content. Well more than half of those polled (61%) "strongly" or "somewhat" support the F.D.A. labeling requirements for food produced using biotechnology, while 24% were "neutral," which was unchanged from last year’s survey.

This year, the I.F.I.C. included questions about "sustainability" in the food biotechnology survey for the first time. Although Americans use a variety of terms to describe "sustainability," 83% equate the term to "long-lasting" or "self-sufficiency." Close to three-quarters of Americans (70%), however, said they have heard "nothing" about sustainable food production.

When sustainability was defined as a method to "operate in a manner which does not jeopardize the availability of resources for future generations," 63% of Americans said they thought it was important. In a question where consumers were asked to rank five factors related to growing crops in a sustainable way, the factor ranked No. 1 was "increasing the production of food staples in the world, thereby reducing world hunger", with "reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food" coming in second. Other eco-friendly factors like rainforest conservation and reducing green house gas emissions ranked lower.

The I.F.I.C. commissioned Cogent Research to conduct the 12th in a series (1997-2007) of quantitative assessments of U.S. adult consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology from July 11-27, 2007. The survey had a sample size of 1,000 and the data were weighted on age and education to be nationally representative.

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