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Many in the apple industry are nervous about the pending deregulation of genetically modified apples. Will their presence create a consumer backlash that might affect the apple’s image and marketability?

A recent article on the topic in Good Fruit Grower prompted some reader reaction—mostly negative comments—that are posted in the story “GMO debate rages.” It is difficult to know what this means, but it does raise the question:

Do people generally worry much about consuming foods produced using genetic engineering technology?

David Schmidt, president of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), addressed that question during the U.S. Apple Association Marketing and Outlook Conference in Chicago in August.

While several groups loudly oppose genetic engineering, creating fearful images of what they call “Frankenfoods,” Schmidt says consumer group activism does not necessarily reflect consumer attitudes, and many consumer groups either support or do not oppose biotechnology.

His organization has tried to plumb the depth of consumer thought and feeling about genetically modified foods and other food issues as well. Every other year since 1997, the organization has surveyed a thousand people. By asking the same questions year after, they can discern shifts in public attitudes.

When consumers are asked open-ended questions that are neutral in tone, most show little concern about bioengineered foods. However, the information they do have is often incorrect—even if it is not negative. For example, many consumers think many fruits and vegetables are bioengineered, even though virtually none are.

Science-based advocacy

David Schmidt

David Schmidt

The IFIC was created in 1985 to communicate science-based information about food safety and nutrition to consumers and opinion leaders. The organization is financially supported mostly by food, beverage, and agricultural industries that are supporters of food biotechnology, though it lists many health-related organizations as partners.

“The galvanizing issue that led to our formation then was aspartame (the non-sugar sweetener),” Schmidt told Good Fruit Grower. “Even though the ingredient had been approved by the FDA, activists were coming out of the woodwork to claim all sorts of harm from consuming aspartame in soft drinks.”

When asked what he thought the apple industry’s position should be on Arctic apples, which are nonbrowning cultivars produced using genetic engineering, he replied: “We don’t endorse specific products, but I believe the benefit it provides would be attractive to many consumers. I would encourage the apple industry to stand for choice as well as the science.

“By opposing use of approved biotechnology traits, some in the industry are effectively surrendering to the activists and making them stronger—letting the shrill voices of a few deny benefit to many. If apple pie is American, appeasing a vocal minority to avoid a perceived problem is certainly not.

“And of course opposing use of this trait will box the industry in the corner for the next beneficial trait that comes along, as well as many other potential improvements.”

Attitudes change

Consumer attitudes have shifted over the years the surveys have been taken.

On food safety, for example, disease and food contamination were the greatest concern in 2008, coincident with several food contamination events. Today, only half as many list it as their first concern—18 percent in 2014 compared to 38 percent in 2008.

In general, consumers’ food safety concerns are less focused than they were in 2008. Biotechnology was listed as a concern by 1 percent of those surveyed in 2008, a number that increased to 7 percent this year.

Biotech awareness

Since 2008, Americans’ awareness of biotechnology has not increased much. About 60 percent say they know a little bit about it; nearly 30 percent say they know nothing at all about it.

But the group that says they know a lot about it is growing slowly and has risen from 8 percent to 11 percent. In general, twice as many mothers of children say they’ve heard a lot about biotech foods than non-moms.

There was an even split between consumers who said they generally favored use of biotechnology and those who did not—about 28 percent each. The “not favorable” category has been gradually increasing since 2008.

In general, young people under 35—the Millennials—have more favorable views toward food biotechnology than older people. Every year, more people become aware that foods produced using biotechnology are actually in supermarkets today.

“Awareness of biotech foods in the supermarket is much higher than in 2008,” Schmidt said. Still, more than 60 percent of shoppers don’t know when they are buying biotech foods.

Asked if they approved of using biotechnology to increase nutrition or health-related benefits, two-thirds of consumers said they’d buy such foods.

They liked the idea of using biotechnology to provide more healthful fats and improve vitamin content, reduce potential for carcinogens, protect foods from insect damage while using fewer insecticides, getting higher yields using less land and water, keeping food prices stable, and feeding undernourished people around the world.

Food labeling

The percentage of consumers who say they would like more information on food labels increased to 26 percent in 2014 from 14 percent in 2008. Of that 26 percent, a third wanted more nutrition information and a sixth wanted genetically modified ingredients labeled.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires special labeling under some circumstances. When biotechnology is used, a label is required to indicate if the food’s nutritional content or composition is changed or when a safety issue, such as a food allergen, is identified. Otherwise, no special label is required.

In the surveys, consumers were asked whether that was good policy or not. In 2014, 63 percent said it was good policy. “The majority of Americans support the current FDA policy for labeling of foods produced through biotechnology,” Schmidt said, “although the percentage who oppose it is higher than in 2012.”

Information about biotech foods can be found at the website www.foodinsight.org. •