Consumers unaware how widespread biotech foods

Monday, March 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Nearly 60 percent of people in a new poll said they didn't want genetically engineered crops introduced into the food supply. But when informed the ingredients were already in at least half the products on store shelves, almost half said they must be safe.

Sixty-two percent of those polled said that they had never eaten biotech foods, as far as they knew.

Before being told how prevalent biotech food is, 46 percent of the respondents didn't have an opinion on the products' safety and 25 percent thought they were unsafe. Some 29 percent thought they were safe. Fifty-eight percent said they didn't want them allowed into the U.S. food supply.

After being told how widespread such food is, 48 percent of the respondents said they thought biotech products were OK, while 21 percent thought they were unsafe. The remaining 31 percent didn't have an opinion.

``Despite the heated national debate about agricultural biotechnology, most Americans do not have strong or well-informed opinions about this new technology,'' said Mike Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative for Agricultural Biotechnology, a private organization that commissioned the poll.

``Essentially, public opinion is up for grabs because this new technology has moved faster than the public's ability to fully understand it and its implications.''

Three-quarters of respondents wanted to know when foods contain genetically engineered ingredients. The government doesn't require food makers to label biotech products, so long as the biotech crops are essentially the same as conventionally bred varieties.

More than half the soybeans now grown by U.S. farmers have been engineered to make them immune to a common herbicide, and about 20 percent of the corn is of various biotech varieties that make the crop toxic to an insect pest.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of all processed foods may contain biotech soy or corn. Infant formula, corn chips, veggie burgers and muffin mixes are among the many products known to contain biotech ingredients.

Anti-biotech groups say there isn't enough known about the potential health effects of genetically engineered plants and animals. But federal officials say there are no health risks from biotech products now approved for food use and no reason to require them to be labeled.

The industry was rocked last fall when a variety of biotech corn not approved for human consumption was found in taco shells, prompting a series of nationwide recalls.

According to the poll, 57 percent of consumers were at least somewhat concerned about that situation, but 77 percent said it had not affected their shopping practices.

The poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 22-26 by The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies.

The Pew organization was recently formed by the Pew Charitable Trusts to help the public deal with the conflicting claims about biotechnology, Rodemeyer said. The group plans to issue papers and hold conferences and workshops on the issue.

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, a Democrat, and former Republican congressman Vin Weber are chairing the initiative's advisory committee.