Food Technology Survey Finds Consumers Savor Biotechnology, Sustainability

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) 2010 "Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology" survey found that consumers support the use of food biotechnology when they consider its potential benefits for reducing the impact of food and food production on the environment, and for improving sustainability.

The 14th IFIC Food Technology Consumer Survey (formerly the IFIC Survey of Consumer Attitudinal Trends toward Food Biotechnology) explored U.S. consumers' perceptions of various aspects of plant and animal biotechnology, as well as sustainability and new and emerging technologies such as nanotechnology. This year, consumers responded most positively to benefits of biotechnology for the environment and sustainability. For example, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of consumers said they would be likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology for their ability to reduce pesticide use (consistent from 2008), and 80 percent of consumers said they would be likely to purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing wheat that was grown using plant biotechnology if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides (new question in 2010). While products containing wheat grown using biotechnology are still up to a decade away from being commercially available, these data indicate a receptive audience to such products if they are produced through sustainable practices, IFIC said.

"These results suggest that the importance of the impact of food production on the environment is here to stay for consumers," said Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RD, LD, FADA, IFIC's Interim Vice President, Nutrition and Food Safety. "Over the last several years we've seen the overall awareness of sustainability and environmental issues continue to grow."

Half of the survey respondents said they have heard or read at least "a little" about the concept of sustainability in food production. This is a significant increase from 2008, when only four in ten (41 percent) had read or heard anything about sustainability in food production, and 2007, when only three in ten (30 percent) had heard or read anything about sustainability in food production.

With the increased focus by Americans on reducing environmental impact, IFIC said it found that those aspects of sustainable crop production benefiting the environment resonate most with consumers. When asked to rank aspects of sustainable crop production (from a list of options) in order of importance, consumers' top three are:

  • "Growing more food on less land so valuable land like rain forests is not destroyed/used as growing space for increased food production." (69 percent)
  • "Reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food." (65 percent)
  • "Plants that use water more efficiently, thereby conserving fresh water to help cope with predicted droughts and water shortages." (62 percent)

Among other survey highlights, seven in ten consumers (69 percent) said they are somewhat or very confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply, and the majority of consumers (82 percent) said they cannot think of additional information they would like to see on food labels. Sixty-three percent of consumers agree with the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) food labeling policy, which requires food products to be labeled when use of biotechnology substantially changes the food's nutritional content (such as vitamins or fat) or its composition, or when a potential food safety issue is identified. Only 12 percent oppose, and 24 percent neither support nor oppose the policy.

About seven in ten survey respondents (69 percent) said they have heard or read at least “a little” about biotechnology, steady from previous years. Significantly more consumers believe there are foods produced through biotechnology in the supermarket now (28 percent) compared with 2008 (23 percent), although these consumers are still the minority.

The majority of consumers said they are somewhat or very likely to purchase a variety of produce, such as tomatoes or potatoes, modified by biotechnology to provide more healthful fats like Omega-3s (76 percent); to avoid trans fat (74 percent); or to make them taste better/fresher (67 percent). About one-third (32 percent) said they are somewhat or very favorable toward plant biotechnology, with about two in ten (19 percent) somewhat or very unfavorable and about three in ten (29 percent) neither favorable nor unfavorable.

About three in ten (29 percent) respondents said they are somewhat or very favorable toward animal biotechnology, while slightly more than one-quarter (27 percent) are somewhat or very unfavorable, and about one-quarter (24 percent) are neither favorable nor unfavorable. Interestingly, the majority of consumers who are either unfavorable or neutral in their views toward animal biotechnology cited "I don't have enough information" about animal biotechnology (55 percent) and/or "I don't understand the benefits of using biotechnology with animals" (39 percent) as their reason(s) for being unfavorable or neutral.

Slightly more than one-third (35 percent) of Americans have read or heard at least "a little" about nanotechnology, a science that involves the design and application of structures, devices, and systems on an extremely small scale, called the nanoscale (i.e. billionths of a meter, or about 1-millionth the size of a pinhead), the survey found. However, when consumers were given examples of potential benefits of food applications of nanotechnology, such as food packaging and processing to improve food safety, and quality and better nutrient and ingredient profiles to improve health, half of consumers (49 percent) were favorable toward the technology.

For more information on the survey and a link to its data tables, go to www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=2010_Consumer_Perceptions_of_Food_Technology_Survey.

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