Europeans think we're blasé or unconcerned about biotechnology. And maybe we are to some degree. But our overriding attitude may be more accurately characterized as ambivalent and tolerant.
Our nation was built on a foundation of tolerance—tolerance for different viewpoints, religion, life pursuits, etc. This may help explain our seemingly dichotomous society, which contains groups, for example, that favor and promote natural and organic foods on the one hand and other groups that support biotechnology on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Although organic/natural and biotechnology are diametrically opposed to one another, they co-exist—just as far right-wing radicals and left-wing extremists do. In fact, I believe the speeches and causes of both the far right and the extreme left actually move Americans, as a whole, to the center or middle.
It's very rare in this country that “fringe” groups set public policy, but it can happen. For example, in 1991, the State of Maine passed a law imposing a special tax (5.5%) on snack foods, such as crackers, bread sticks, ice cream, frozen yogurt, muffins, pies, cookies, cakes, gelatin, puddings, hot cocoa mix, marshmallows, breakfast bars and roasted nuts. However, the law was repealed last year.
In January of this year, the FDA proposed regulations concerning food biotechnology. The new proposals require companies to consult with FDA at least 120 days before launching a new genetically modified food. In the past, this was voluntary. Food companies must also provide health and safety data on the new GM food to the agency.
As part of its proposal, the FDA has developed a draft guidance document to assist processors who want to voluntarily label their products as being manufactured with or without the use of GM ingredients.
Most Americans favor labeling of GM foods, according to a recent survey of 1001 consumers conducted by The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. About 75% of Americans say it is important to them to know whether a product contains GM ingredients, with 46% saying it is very important. About 21% of consumers say that it is not important for them to know whether a product has been genetically modified.
Although this Pew study was conducted after last fall's StarLink corn adulteration incident, a majority of Americans (54%) say that they have heard “not much” or “nothing” about GM foods or biotechnology. Likewise, most consumers (62%) believe that they have not eaten GM foods. Nineteen percent say they have eaten GM foods and another 19% say they don't know.
When asked whether GM foods were basically safe, 46% of consumers say they don't know, 29% say they are safe and 25% say they are unsafe. When informed that more than half of the foods in grocery stores contains GM ingredients, about 48% of consumers say that these foods are safe. In fact, one in five of those who initially said GM foods were unsafe changed their minds.
About 58% of consumers, according to the Pew study, oppose the introduction of genetically modified foods. However, 65% favor research into GM foods, with 37% strongly favoring this research. About 26% oppose additional biotechnology exploration.
Most consumers (62%) believe that they have not eaten genetically modified foods.