Americans want tougher GM regulation

Related tags Gm foods Maize Genetically modified food Genetic engineering

Americans' attitudes about genetically modified (GM) foods remain
divided, although their opinions appear not be deeply held and can
be influenced by new information and events, according to a study
released this week, reports Philippa Nuttall.

The study carried out by the by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, concluded that regardless of their attitudes about GM food, a majority of Americans supported a strong regulatory system for GM foods.

Americans' attitudes toward GM food remain divided and stable, though not necessarily deeply held, the survey found, and had not significantly changed in three years.

In 2004, 30 percent of consumers said that GM foods are "basically safe"​ (up from 29 percent in 2001 and 27 percent in 2003), while 27 percent said that they are "basically unsafe"​ (up from 25 percent in both 2001 and 2003). However, opposition to introducing genetically modified foods into the US food supply has declined from 58 percent in 2001 to 47 percent today.

Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, agreed that the decrease in opposition was probably because there has been less coverage of GM crops in the media in the last few years.

"The FDA and the USDA have run some public information programmes but nothing too effective,"​ noted Rodemeyer.

Indeed, only 32 percent of consumers reported that they heard a great deal or some about genetically modified foods in 2004, a 12-point decline since 2001.

Unlike in the UK and Europe where consumers have become much more involved in the GM debate, he does not believe it is an issue at the fore-front of the US consumers mind and that when they are told they have been eating GM foods they think that because they haven't had a negative reaction that in fact these foods are totally safe.

Moreover, he said Americans have confidence in the safety of their food.

"We have not had the BSE crisis over here and the FDA is one of the most respected food agencies in the world,"​ he added.

However, there is a certain amount of schizophrenia in the attitude of the average Amerian shopper. Although, they do not appear to be bothered by the fact they have often been eating GM foods without their knowledge, they believe strongly in the need for labeling.

Of the 40 percent of Americans who reported hearing about regulations for GM foods, 8 percent said there was "too much"​ regulation of GM foods, 19 percent said there was the right amount of regulation and 40 percent said there was "too little"​ regulation of GM foods.

"They want to know that the government is looking over their shoulder,"​ said Rodemeyer.

The big food companies have generally kept quiet on the issues surrounding the safety and desirability of GM crops. However, GM has caused somewhat of a headache for them. It has made it harder for them to move grain to Europe where the regulations governing GM foods are much stricter and mot consumers have said they do not want to eat them. Hence many companies have finished by producing one product for the US market and another for Europe.

Because of this, Rodemeyer commented that he "would not be surprised if there were a move away [from GM]," adding also that the organic market is growing rapidly in the US, albeit from a very small base.

However, certain crops in the US are now virtually all GM. Rodemeyer noted that 90 percent of corn and soy bean is GM, though most of this is fed directly to animals rather than humans.

Last month the FDA issued draft guidance for the food industry to address the safety of biotech foods, proposing that developers provide it with information about the food safety of the new protein at a relatively early stage of the development of a crop. If and when a developer decides to commercialize a particular crop, he would then be expected to participate in the FDA's voluntary premarket consultation process.

Until now, all new plant varieties developed through biotechnology that are intended for food and feed marketed in the United States have completed the consultation process before they entered the market.

As Rodemeyer pointed out, however, this is still a voluntary process and there are no legal requirements for companies to comply with the system.

"At the end of the Clinton administration, the FDA had proposed making the notification mandatory, but Lester Crawford, [the acting ] has now said this is not high on the agenda,"​ said Rodemeyer.

However it is fairly high on the consumer's list of priorities. While 85 percent said they favored the present policy of removing "unsafe"​ GM foods from the market, the same number wanted regulators to ensure that GM foods are safe before they come to market. Indeed, 81 percent of them believed that FDA should approve the safety of GM foods before they come to market, even if there would be "substantial delays"​.

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