Research shows public unaware of GMO prevalence

Genetically modified foods (GMFs) are becoming increasingly prevalent in stores, but they are rarely labeled and the public generally is not aware of whether an item has a modified ingredient or not.

A paper published in 2013 explained how the public perceives the risks associated with genetically modified foods, said Cara Cuite, an associate research professor in the Department of Human Ecology.

“We’ve done a number of national surveys that look at what the public knows about genetically modified food and what they think about genetically modified foods," she said. 

Labeling genetically modified foods has become a controversial issue in the United States, she said.

Candidates were asked in a survey whether they think that food should have GMO labels on them or not. The way the question is asked has a big impact on the answers that they receive, Cuite said.

“When we ask in just an open ended format at the beginning of the survey where we haven’t told people what the survey is really about yet, 7 percent spontaneously say that they would like to see GMF labels added to current labels," she said.

When asked whether it was "very or extremely important" for labels to state items were genetically modified, 59 percent of respondents said yes, Cuite said. 

“Then when we ask them specifically ... we tell them that current regulations do not require GMF’s to be labeled and we ask them specifically if they think that they should be and we find 73 percent say 'yes,' they do think they should be (labeled)," she said. 

The remaining 17 percent of responders are not sure whether these items should be labeled, Cuite said.

“What’s also interesting is a lot of people don’t know that they’re not currently labeled,” she said. “So some people think, ‘Well, if (my food was genetically modified), I would know about it because it would be labeled.’”

This is a common thought among many consumers, she said.

The gap between these numbers shows how GMFs are not usually on the top of people's minds, Cuite said.

Jeffin Naduparambil, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said he thinks everyone should be able to know what is in their food.

"Knowing that some foods are made with GMOs allows consumers to make better decisions about their eating habits," he said.

Genetically modified foods are prevalent among current supermarkets, Cuite said.

“The best estimates are that somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of foods in the supermarkets contain some GM ingredients," she said.

This makes it difficult to avoid eating GMFs altogether, Cuite said.

“If people wanted to stop eating GMFs, it would require a significant change in the foods that they are currently eating. So I’m sure there are some people who would avoid GM foods. But I think it would be very, very difficult for most people to completely avoid them,” she said

The only way to avoid GMFs at the moment would be to eat a strictly organic diet, Cuite said. The standards for these foods do not allow any genetically modified items to be included.

Organic food is completely free of genetically modified ingredients, including meat and fish, she said. There are currently no genetically modified meats or fish on the market.

Cuite said she feels there may be a fear among consumers that if there were a label on genetically modified foods, people may take it as a warning against that food. 

GMFs may be necessary despite any potential negatives, said Srihari Chekur, a School of Engineering junior.

"I think genetically modified foods are bad, but with food shortages expected, genetically modified food may be unavoidable," he said.

The majority of people are unaware if GMFs are available or not, Cuite said.

"I would say that most people are not sure and that’s understandable because there are no labels," she said. "It’s not something that a lot of people are paying attention to right now."

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