Consumers have significant health concerns about foods labeled as “bioengineered” (BE)  according to new research from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation. The BE labels were recently proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and if adopted, would replace current GMO labeling.

To find out how consumers felt about the proposed labels, IFIC surveyed 1,002 Americans ages 18 to 80. All respondents have primary or shared responsibility of grocery shopping in their households.

BE labels

Examples of National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Proposed Symbols

“Bioengineered” labels

Survey respondents didn’t react favorably to the BE labels proposed by the USDA. In fact, BE disclosures heightened consumer concern for human health considerably and also reduced the amount they were willing to pay for an item.

Gauging how the consumers feel about BE disclosures entailed showing the participants products, for example, canola oil, with different combinations of symbols and text signaling the food is BE.

BE Disclosure Type Percentage of respondents with health concerns
No BE disclosure 31%
Plant symbol* 50%
Plant symbol* plus “bioengineered” text 51%
Plant symbol* plus “may be bioengineered” text 57%

*One of three symbols proposed by the USDA.

When surveyors asked participants what the right amount of BE disclosure is acceptable to them, the vast majority indicated that any of the symbols plus a text disclosure is appropriate.

Feelings towards GMOs

The respondents’ reaction to BE labeled products could be indicative of a larger aversion to — and misunderstanding of — GMOs.

Over one-third of those surveyed said they know little or nothing about BE food or GMOs, and another third reported knowing “a fair amount.” But nearly half (47%) still avoid GMOs, primarily for human health concerns (85%), even though science has shown that GMOs are safe for consumption.

Consumer education needed

Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation, suggests public education could be the answer to helping consumers understand what’s in their grocery carts: “Despite broad scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to consume, a majority of Americans seem to be convinced otherwise. It’s a significant disconnect and it underscores the need for more creative public education on the science behind our food.”

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