In 2004 the European Union adopted compulsory labelling of all food products with genetically modified content in any ingredient. According to the authors of the survey, funded by the European Commission, by the end of 2005 labelled GM foods “of one sort or another” were on sale in Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
Surveys of public view have generally indicated that people would not buy GM foods if they had the chance; focus groups tend to be dominated by ethical concerns and fears over environmental and health fears.
But the researchers, coordinated by Professor Vivian Moses of Kings College London, went one step further, by see what consumers actually did when shopping in familiar stores that offered food labelled as containing or being derived from GM ingredients, but without their attention being specifically drawn to them.
“It would be up to them, if they were interested, to find out by reading the labels,” they wrote in their report, published this week.
They found, when cross-checking survey answers against actual purchases, that the very same people who said they would not buy GM-labelled goods did not actively avoid them.
“Responses given by consumers when prompted by questionnaires about GM-foods are not a reliable guide to what they do when shopping in grocery stores,” was the conclusion.
Most of the labelled GM foods on sale were oils from GM soy, whether sold as cooking oil or incorporated into other products like margarine. A very few oil and other ingredients from GM maize were also available.
In addition, the researchers found that at the time they investigating GM-containing products in all ten countries listed above, four of them (Germany, Greece, Slovenia and Sweden) did not currently have any on sale.
Calls for more visible labels
Helen Holder, GMO campaigner for Friends of the Earth, questioned the scope of the study, since it covered only six countries and very few products. She noted that the oil on offer was at the cheap end of the market and much was sold in bulk.
She told FoodNavigator.com that the central issue is visibility of GM labels.
“Small print on the back of a product does not encourage people to know what they are buying,” she said, drawing on parallels with foods high in salt and sugar, for which there are moves for front-of-pack labelling schemes.
“Labels need to be made much more explicit”.
While the researchers admitted that people did not seem to be able to recognize GM food in spite of the labelling requirements, they said this does not really seem to be a problem, since they pay “scant attention” to the labels anyway.
But Holder said that many people believe there is no GM food sold in Europe at all, so they are not actively looking for the labels.
The researchers noted that a GM-free label is quite common in some countries, such as Poland and Germany. Such a label is not permitted in other countries, like The Netherlands and Sweden – but in fact, in the latter there were “many products labelled GM-free”.
Where they were used, a GM-free label on the front of pack was seen to be “more likely to influence shoppers than a ‘containing-GM’ label in small print on the back”.
The researchers said this suggests that GM-free products are chosen with greater thought by consumers.