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Two main opposing viewpoints exist with regard to GMO food policy labeling; some sources suggest that consumers are unconcerned and do not want any labeling, while others indicate the opposite. However, one flaw existing in past research is that many GM labeling studies regard the issue as one in which the consumer’s only desire for information is about whether or not the foods they purchase are in fact genetically modified. Another flaw is that old studies often refer to the GM technology in vague and/or imprecise terms, leaving it up to the consumer to make finer distinctions. The objective of this study was to identify if consumers differ in their risk/benefit evaluation of genetically modified foods and how these differences may translate into various different preferences as pertaining to GM labeling policy. A mail survey was administered to a nationally representative population sample of 5,462 U. S. residents and an additional oversample of 710 Maine residents.
The response rates were 37 and 53 percent, respectively. Questions on the surveys were aimed at respondents’ perceptions of different food technologies, knowledge of the prevalence of GM foods, perceptions of potential benefits and risks of GM food consumption, reactions to GM labeling movements or programs, and willingness to purchase or avoid GM products. Factor analysis on the benefit variables yields two factors: own benefits, which relate most directly to consumers, and produce benefits, which impact the producer. Factor analysis of risks yielded two factors also: health/environmental risk as related directly to the consumer and producer risk, which describes risks undertaken by the producer. A key component of variables corresponding with health/environmental risk is the uncertainty of long-term effects.
The high amount of concern surrounding unknown or uncertain impacts is a consistent topic that explains consumers’ negative reactions to or perceptions of new food technologies. Three segments of respondents with different attitudes to the risks and benefits of GM food were identified in the study: risk avoiders, risk dismissers, and balanced but interested. Risk avoiders are intermediate in terms of the group size (677 people) and are not interested in the potential benefits of GM foods while being very concerned about health/environmental risks that may potentially be associated with GM foods.
Risk dismissers are the smallest group (482 people) and rate their own benefits and producer benefits higher than health/environmental risks; this may indicate that these respondents believe new food technology creates benefits at a low personal risk. Balanced but interested makes up the largest group of 896 people; these respondents believe that both benefits and risks are important and do not feel strongly about either personal risks or health/environmental risks. Risk avoiders and risk dismissers generally favor that only GM foods carry labeling, while balanced but interested favor mandatory testing and labeling of all foods.