Voters' Response to Labeling Genetically Engineered Foods: Oregon's Experience

Article excerpt

Oregonians voted on Measure 27, a measure to label genetically engineered foods, in November 2002. A follow-up survey of 801 voters was conducted to explore how consumers voted in an actual election on this issue, who voted for and against this measure, and why they voted the way they did. The results revealed that the measure did not pass for a variety of reasons. Those included concern with costs, questions about necessity of the labeling in view of safety assessments by the FDA, concern with how the measure was worded, and the impact the measure would have on farmers. The majority of respondents supporting the measure wanted to know what is in the food they are eating.

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Genetically engineered foods such as corn and soybeans are now prevalent in U.S. markets (USDA 2002). Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded that bioengineered foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts, national surveys have repeatedly shown that consumers want genetically engineered (GE) foods to be labeled (Center for Rural Studies 2000; Hoban and Kendall 1993; Nestle 1998; Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology 2001). Yet currently, there are no U.S. regulations requiring GE labeling. In November 2002, Oregonians voted on a ballot measure--Measure 27--that would have required food companies to label genetically engineered food and food additives sold or distributed in, or from Oregon (Barnard 2002). The majority of Oregon voters rejected the measure. In a follow-up survey, we analyzed responses of a random sample of voters.

National surveys have found varied consumer support for food biotechnology, ranging from a low of 25% to over 70% (Hoban 1997; IFIC 2003; Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology 2001; Shanahan, Scheufele, and Lee 2001; Shoemaker, Johnson, and Golan 2003). While the percentage of consumers who reported at least some knowledge of genetically modified food has remained relatively constant in the past several years, only 36% of survey respondents were aware that food produced through biotechnology is currently available in supermarkets (IFIC 2003; Shanahan, Scheufele, and Lee 2001). IFIC's survey also found that 62% of respondents indicate they "strongly" or "somewhat strongly" support the FDA's conditional labeling policy (IFIC 2003). This figure has dropped from 70% in 2001. Conversely, 84% of consumers in 1999 and 86% of consumers in 2000 supported mandatory labeling on all genetically altered foods (Shanahan, Scheufele, and Lee 2001). Further, the majority of respondents surveyed (86% in 2000, 75% in 2001) agreed to some extent that consumers needed more detailed information about biotechnology ingredients (IFIC 2001).

Measure 27 would have required labels on all foods that contain at least 1% genetically engineered (1) ingredients, and any foods grown, sold, or distributed in Oregon for human or animal consumption would have been affected by the measure (General Election Online Voters' Guide 2002). This requirement is similar to other countries' national labeling policies. There currently are 28 countries in addition to the European Union (EU) that have either adopted or are planning to introduce labels for GE foods (Carter and Gruere 2003; Phillips and McNeill 2000). To date, however, there is no common standard among the existing labeling policies (Phillips and McNeill 2000).

With the growing prevalence of GE crops grown in the U.S., the supporters of Measure 27 wanted consumers to have information to make choices about buying GE foods. Conversely, agriculture, food processing, and biotechnology industry groups opposed the measure for several reasons including cost, lack of scientific justification, and availability of organic food alternatives (Callahan 2002; Giese 2002).

Opponents argued that labeling would be costly to companies, state governments, and consumers. Estimates from other countries indicate total annual costs ranging from 23 cents per person to about $10 per person, with one study reporting a cost of $35 to $48 per person per year (Jaeger 2002). …