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Subject: CONSUMER AND FOOD INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVES ON FOOD BIOTECHNOLOGY
I have enjoyed reading the many good messages from the
AgBioWorld that I thought I should offer my own contribution. The
following is a summary I am distributing during my talk at the annual
convention of the Food Marketing Institute in Chicago.
CONSUMER AND FOOD INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVES
ON FOOD BIOTECHNOLOGY
Thomas J. Hoban, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology and Food Science
NC State University -- Raleigh, North Carolina
Survey research over the past decade shows that biotechnology is
not likely to become an important issue for most American
consumers. Consumers find biotechnology acceptable when they
believe it offers benefits and it is safe. Surveys have consistently
found that a majority of American consumers are willing to buy
insect-protected food crops developed through biotechnology that
use fewer chemical pesticides, as well as more nutritious foods.
American consumers also appreciate the role that biotechnology
can play in feeding the world. Research shows that European
consumers are much less supportive of all biotechnology
Surveys since 1992 show that relatively few U.S. consumers have
heard or read much about biotechnology. News about the cloned
sheep pushed awareness to 50 percent in March 1997. Surveys in
the first three months of 2000 show that awareness has fallen back
to just over one- third in the United States. Such trends reflect the
fact that most people get their information about biotechnology from
the media. Unfortunately, many consumers also do not understand
some fundamental principles of biology. European consumer
awareness is somewhat higher, but knowledge is still low.
Media coverage in the United States has generally been balanced
(which helps account for our relatively high levels of acceptance).
This is in sharp contrast to the European media, which have played
upon fear of the unknown. The European media have also tended
to accept opponents' claims without question. Another issue is that
many people no longer have a connection to agriculture. In fact,
research has shown that many consumers are unaware that all
foods are derived from plants or animals that already have been
genetically modified through traditional (but imprecise) breeding
American consumers look to health professionals and scientific
experts for credible information, but place relatively little trust in the
activists who oppose biotechnology. Research shows that
acceptance increases significantly when American consumers
learn that organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences
and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have determined that
biotech-derived foods are safe. In contrast, European consumers
express the most trust in those groups that oppose biotechnology.
They have much less confidence in government, industry, or even
scientists. American culture is more supportive and rewarding of
new technology. Europeans tend to view food differently from U.S.
consumers. In fact, some Europeans reject all American food
products. Europeans also want to protect their small farms to
maintain open space and rural employment. Such forces underlie
much of the European anxiety about agricultural biotech especially
since it is seen as an "American invention."
The food industry plays a vital role in shaping consumers' attitudes
and appetite for new food items. This is particularly true for the
products developed with biotechnology. Opponents have waged
an aggressive campaign to pressure the industry into publicly
rejecting biotechnology. In such cases, companies have been
forced to take steps against their own beliefs and long- term
interests. I have recently completed telephone interviews with over
130 key leaders from leading food processing and retailing
companies. This provides considerable insights into the real
perspectives of the industry.
Most of the industry leaders interviewed are quite enthusiastic
about the benefits of biotechnology -- especially in terms of
increased food availability, enhanced nutrition, and environmental
protection. Most feel that biotechnology has already provided
benefits to consumers. Almost all recognize that foods developed
through biotechnology have already been part of consumers'
everyday diet. They clearly do not agree with most of the
opponents claims and tend to have almost no trust in such groups.
Their main concerns involve lack of consumer acceptance -- not the
safety of the foods. They express high levels of confidence in the
science and the regulatory process. In fact, almost none feel that
biotechnology should not be used because of uncertain, potential
risks. Most food industry leaders do not feel it is necessary to have
special labels on foods developed through biotechnology. They
express concerns that such labels would be perceived as a warning
by consumers. They also worried that the need to segregate
commodities would pose financial and logistical burdens on
everyone in the system including consumers. Food industry
leaders recognize a major need to educate the public about
biotechnology. They look to third parties, such as university and
government scientists to provide such leadership.
IMPLICATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Biotechnology is at a crossroads in terms of public acceptance.
Many US consumers have not yet formed a solid opinion on this
complex issue. International developments over the next year will
certainly have a major influence on the long-term viability of
biotechnology. The future of the world food supply depends upon
how well scientists, government, and the industry are able to
communicate with consumers about the benefits and safety of the
Several major initiatives are under way to strengthen the regulatory
process and communicate more effectively with consumers. Both
the USDA and FDA have opened their regulatory systems to
outside review and public comment. The biotechnology industry,
university scientists and others are also conducting educational
programs. These should further strengthen consumer confidence.
This partnership among the public and private sectors will support
these emerging technologies that will prove vital to the U.S.
economy and the developing world in the new millennium. Even
Europe will soon find the real benefits of biotechnology compelling.
Research shows that consumers will accept biotech foods if they
see a benefit to themselves or society and if the price is right. Their
responses to foods developed through biotechnology are basically
the same as for any other food: taste, nutrition, price, safety and
convenience are the major factors that influence our decisions
about which foods to eat. How seeds and food ingredients are
developed will only be relevant for a relatively small group of
concerned, consumers. The food industry needs to focus on what it
does best: namely producing and distributing value added foods
that consumers want.