The research, funded by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), examined public attitudes towards a raft of novel food technologies. It concluded that people were generally “unsupportive” of these - although the level of understanding about the technologies was considered low.
The study, completed as part of the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey, said there was a “large middle ground of the undecided” whose views were “malleable” but not necessarily in a passive way. Key factors in determining consumer points of view included perceptions of risks and benefits, as well as moral and ethical concerns – particularly regarding cloning and genetically modified foods.
The report, entitled An Evidence Review of Public Attitudes to Emerging Food Technologies, said awareness of nanotechnology was low but that attitudes towards it were generally positive. Consumers remain unconvinced about the need or benefits of the technology in food applications but were far more accepting of it in food packaging.
The research found that scepticism around nanotech in food centred on how necessary it was – with respondents in some instances predicting a “backlash” against use of nanomaterials in food and medicine. Conversely, attitudes towards food packaging were more favourable. One Swiss study revealed “that applications that were ingested were generally seen as higher risk and of lower benefits than those applications related to food packaging: e.g.: UV protection packaging, salmonella detectors etc.”
Greater knowledge on the matter was also linked to higher acceptance, with men generally more positive than women.
There was high awareness of animal cloning but low levels of both understanding and approval. Attitudes ranged from “uncertainty to scepticism”, said researchers.
Cloning animals for food is seen as the least acceptable application – with 58 per cent of EU citizens (45 per cent in the UK) saying it could “never be justified”. Some 84 per cent of Europeans said not enough was known about the long-term effects of using cloned animals for food to allow its use. Fears were often related to past food controversies such as BSE and GM. A majority of consumers in both the US and Europe believed cloned food is “unnecessary”.
Perceptions that cloned animals suffer higher rates of deformity and miscarriage also fuelled anxieties. Consumers worried that cloning could create a two tier market “where only the better off could either afford the better food – created from cloning – or avoid cloned food, if it was cheaper and of a poorer quality,” said the research.
Most people felt uninformed on the issue and relied on governments and regulators for guidance. However, there was also a strong degree of distrust of these bodies among the public.
The reported concluded that people were generally unwilling to buy food from cloned animals although it added “stated intentions in this area – as in other areas of biotechnology - are a poor guide to actual consumer behaviour”.
The research found that attitudes towards food irradiation were “fairly negative” although this depends of the foodstuff in question. Irradiating fruit and vegetables was cited as being seen as more acceptable than of meat.
Concerns over food safety were tabled as being the common reason for opposition to the technology, as well as uncertainty over its risks and benefits. A study in 2000 found that the reason why consumers refused to buy meat or poultry treated with irradiation was insufficient information on the risks, followed by food safety fears. Other research said that when asked how they would react to a beef product labelled as irradiated, more than 30 per cent of respondents said they would consider it to be a warning, and would try to avoid the product. Less than 21 per cent would see it as quality and safety assurance.
Some research suggested the public may not be as concerned about irradiation as implied by surveys which asked respondents directly about the issue. One study found less than 1 per cent mentioned irradiation unprompted when asked to list food safety concerns – but that this figure jumped to 33 per cent when ask to choose from a register in which it was cited.
The report concluded: “It is clear that there is a great deal more that needs to be found out about public attitudes (in particular, what lies behind ‘top line’ attitudes, and how the various drivers of behaviour interact); and it is clear, too, that engagement with the public about novel food technologies will require very careful thought and extreme tact.”
Read the full report by clicking on the following link