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Americans fuzzy on biotech foods

Consumers question the safety of so-called frankenfoods -- but most have eaten plenty.

December 11, 2006|Rick Weiss | Washington Post

Ten years after genetically engineered crops were first planted commercially in the United States, Americans remain ill-informed about and uncomfortable with biotech food, according to the fifth annual survey on the topic, released Wednesday.

People vastly underestimate how much gene-altered food they are already consuming; lean toward wanting greater regulation of such crops; and have less faith than ever that the Food and Drug Administration will provide accurate information, the survey found.

The poll also confirmed that most Americans, particularly women, do not like the idea of eating meat or milk from cloned animals -- a view that stands in contrast to scientific evidence that cloned food is safe. The FDA recently said it is close to allowing such food on the market.

Overall, said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which sponsored the survey, Americans are "still generally uncertain" about genetically modified and cloned foods.

"How the next generation of biotech products is introduced -- and consumers' trust in the regulation of GM foods -- will be critical in shaping U.S. attitudes in the long term."

In the five years since Pew began plumbing American attitudes toward genetically engineered food, U.S. acreage in such crops has grown substantially. Today, 89% of soybeans, 83% of cotton and 61% of corn is genetically engineered to resist weed-killing chemicals or to help the plants make their own insecticides.

Because most processed foods contain at least small amounts of soy lecithin, corn syrup or related ingredients, almost everyone in the United States has consumed some amount of gene-altered food.

That quiet revolution has been punctuated by occasional high-profile problems, including the 2000 finding of StarLink corn, unapproved for human consumption, in many food products and the recent revelation that the U.S. long-grain rice crop has been contaminated with an experimental variety of gene-altered rice.

In this year's survey, conducted by the Mellman Group, only about one-fourth of the 1,000 adults polled thought they had ever eaten gene-altered food, an indication that Americans have "very little in-depth knowledge of the topic," according to a Pew summary.

Support for marketing genetically modified food has remained flat since 2001 at 27%, with opposition dropping from 58% in 2001 to 46% this year.

The proportion of Americans who say they "don't know" if gene modified foods are safe has shrunk since 2001, while the "safe" and "unsafe" camps grew by about 5% each: 34% believe they are safe, and 29% say they are not.

Of those who claim to have at least a rudimentary sense of how engineered foods are regulated, 41% say they would like to see more stringent rules, and 16% say there is already too much regulation.

Consuming cloned animals -- addressed in the poll for the first time this year -- was a hot-button issue. Among those who said they had no objection to eating genetically engineered foods, 34% were comfortable with animal cloning, while 51% were not.

Religion played a big role in those opinions. Among those who said they attend religious services only "a few times a year or less," 30% were comfortable with animal cloning, and 54% were not. Among those who attend weekly religious services, 17% were comfortable with cloning, and 70% were not.

Asked which sources they trust "a great deal" for information about gene-altered foods, "friends and family" ranked highest, at 37%. Only 29% named the FDA, continuing a steady drop from 41% in 2001.

The least trustworthy source, garnering 11%, was the news media. But remember, you read it here first.

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