Consumers think that current labelling regulation for genetically modified (GM) foods is inadequate, according to a new report from the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The FSA-commissioned report, compiled by independent researchers at the National Centre for Social Research, used a combination of surveys, workshops and in-depth interviews to explore consumer attitudes to GM foods, as well as how those attitudes are formed. It found a broad consensus that consumers think labels should flag all GM processes in foods, including products produced using GM technology or animals fed GM animal feed, which do not currently have to be labelled.
“This study found that existing labelling of food is considered inconsistent and confusing,” the report said. “For example, people reported that the labelling of some foods as ‘non-GM’ or ‘GM-free’ had led them to believe that GM ingredients were widely used in other products.”
The UK government’s overall policy on the cultivation of GM crops is that it should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but genetically modified foods are still not widely available in the UK, according to the FSA.
Most UK consumers are either undecided or opposed to genetically modified (GM) foods, and most are mistrustful of information sources on the subject, the report said.
In a letter to FSA chair Jeff Rooker, the Soil Association's policy director Peter Melchett renewed the organisation's appeal for all foods - including meat and dairy - to be considered for GM labelling.
He wrote: "In the light of your findings, the Soil Association is asking the Food Standards Agency to introduce compulsory labelling of any meat or dairy products from animals fed on GM animal feed."
Attitudes to science
Among the report's key findings, it said that those with positive attitudes toward science and technology were more likely to have positive attitudes toward GM foods.
“They argued against the claim that GM food is unnatural, viewing it as an extension of evolving scientific and agricultural practices” it found. “The potential risks of GM food were recognised but it was claimed that these were outweighed by the benefits.”
However, the opposite was also the case, with those who had negative views of science in general more likely to oppose GM technology.
“From this perspective, the risks involved in scientific activity were less acceptable and the motives and effectiveness of regulation of new food technologies were questioned,” the report said. “Another facet of this viewpoint was that scientific progress was perceived to be happening too fast without sufficient attention to the ethical consequences that it raises.”
Transparency and consumer choice were highly valued across the attitudinal range.
The report concluded that it raises implications for the FSA in terms of information, communication, labelling and regulation.
Although many study participants said that they did not trust the media, government or the food industry – seed companies in particular – to provide them with impartial information, on the whole the FSA was seen as separate from government and a credible source of information. People also saw academics and health professionals as reliably impartial.
The full report can be accessed online here .