GM Food: Labelling in America

Navigation: Home Page   Comment   Education   Videos 

People need more than just the labelling of GM foods: A Response to 'Obama promises to label GMOs' 



In America, in 2011, there are calls for GM food to be labelled.  Whereas, in Britain the Food Standards Agency makes sure that GM food is labelled. 


Main outline

The top video suggests that greater intervention is needed in addition to industry labelling.  Labelling is just the first stage of a process to restore the American public’s confidence in food safety.


The concern with labelling is that, on its own, it can leave consumers as passive recipients of food safety information. This is a problem given food safety emergencies such as BSE.  Consumers were unaware of inconsistencies in labelling policies. Moreover, food labels were of little value to UK consumers given re-assurances from Ministers over BSE.  Given these problems with labelling a number of possible solutions are outlined in the video: 


1) Academic papers need to be freely available to the public.  This could help the public to understand the food that they are eating better.

2) The public need to be involved and need to visit research centres, so that they can be better informed.  Citizens are active now and need access to what research is being undertaken and how it has been carried out.


3) The public needs to decide what agricultural research is funded.  Given that it is public that is eating the food, then it is they that should decide what food technologies are developed.  It is inappropriate for biotechnology companies to follow a 'production orientation'.  This is where the needs of customers are secondary compared with the need to increase output.  In this case, a product is being developed without prior consumer interest.


4) To improve consumer choice, people on low incomes could be given food vouchers.  With such choice, low income consumers could avoid being forced to eat genetically modified food because of a cheap price.

It would also be useful for decisions on genetically modified food to be delegated to a local level so that people have more autonomy.  Decision-making at a national level could have the effect of disenfranchising consumers.




The UK Food Standards Agency has better policies on GM food than in America.  The UK F.S.A. acknowledges the need for labelling.  However, the need for greater public input into food safety policy, as discussed above, suggests that it too could improve.

Obama promises to label GMOs

Panel Discussion about GMO Labeling (

GM Food: Consumer Acceptability in UK

An Article on the Public's Attitudes towards Genetically Modified Food in the UK

Adapted from the British Food Journal (1996: Vol. 38: No. 4/5:39-47)



Arguably, gene technology has 'strategic potential' and it may be one of the most promising technologies of the 21st century.


A major impediment on the adoption and diffusion of GM's is consumer unease and reluctance by producers to introduce any new technology which might destroy public confidence in the market for their produce.


Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the processes through which foods are taken before reaching the table.


Public rejection of irradiation, as a means of food preservation, is a reminder of the demand side constraints resulting in the failure of a novel technology.


In general, consumers find the concept of GM plant derived foods more acceptable than GM animal derived foods.




Focus groups: carefully planned discussions designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive non-threatening environment.

Each focus group lasted 2 hours.  At no point during the discussion was a discussion of what was meant by gene technology given to the participants.




People were characterised as refusers, triers or undecided. 

Values held were identified as safety, control, happiness and justice. 

Refusers had an intrinsic hostility to GM's 

They were      - concerned about tampering with nature or playing god.      

                         - distrustful of controlling individuals or organisations. 

Triers believed GM to have a role in economic and personal progress. 

They believed that "interfering with nature is one thing I'm not bothered about". 

In other words, GM has been going on for many years and these innovations are just another stage in the process. 

Also there were a group of (traditional) triers who were economically vulnerable people with low disposable incomes. 

Undecided depended upon the factors outlined below: 




The participants said they knew very little about gene technology or its applications. 

People were unhappy about the health and safety implications of GM's. 

Confidence in the food industry was mentioned as being undermined by numerous health and food safety testimonials of experts; only to learn of many of them being retracted at a later date. 

People who were cautious about GM's could lead them to be "late adopters" of the technology.




The usefulness of labelling was questioned.  But people thought that GM's should be labelled.  There was no agreement as to the "form" in which information should be presented - words or symbols both being mentioned. 

Government and commercial sources were considered untrustworthy information providers. 

An independent source was seen as more credible.  One respondent said "(I would believe) someone who has got nothing to gain by telling lies". 

The terminology used to describe gene technology was seen to have only a small impact on perceptions and attitudes to the technology. 

Although the word (genetic) manipulation made people feel uncomfortable.


The GM Product


The rejection of GM animal products was strongly related to people’s moral concerns that genetically modified animals may suffer because of the technology. 

"With (red) meat, fish and poultry there is more risk attached to interfering with them”. “Whereas how far can you go wrong with fruit and vegetables?"


Beneficiaries of gene technology


The individuals or organisations most likely to benefit from gene technology were suggested as an unimportant influence in the decision to accept or reject GM foods. 

GM products displaying consumer benefits were more acceptable than those displaying benefits to producers or food chain intermediaries.


Fish Farming and the GM production process


The more closely related the gene source and recipient organism, the more acceptable the end product.  For example, the transfer of copy genes from trout to a salmon was considered acceptable. 

It was considered more unnatural and more unacceptable to transfer genes from higher order species to lower order species.  To transfer from animal to fish; or vegetable to fish is not acceptable.  

New breeds of organism, produced through the breeding of transgenic parent strains were perceived to be more acceptable; than injecting animals and fish with genetic material.  

The injection of genetic material into animals and fish raised concerns over potentially harmful residues that may occur in the flesh and thus be consumed.


GM Product Attributes


The extended shelf-life of products was viewed with suspicion by people who only saw producer and food chain benefits.

If GM could improve healthiness and quality at an affordable, the GM product is likely to be assessed favourably.  However, this does not guarantee purchase.  

Purchase will depend on comparisons of the relative GM products, benefits, with available substitutes.



The resistance to GM animal derived products is not apparent for GM fish products. 

The "litmus test" of acceptability will be consumer’s direct experiences with the introductory GM foods that are launched on the market. 

The medium by which consumers are informed of the GM products and the perceived trustworthiness of the organisation delivering the message is also relevant.


A Discussion on Irradiation and Irradiated Food - Food Policy (1995: Vol. 20:no. 2:111-127)


Trustworthiness - Because food irradiation does not cause detectable changes in food products there is currently no practical test available to verify whether a food has been irradiated or not. 

As a consequence, consumers must rely on food processors to inform them when a food has been irradiated and to provide assurances that the maximum permitted dose has not been exceeded.

Market demand: A fundamental pre-requisite for the commercial application of food irradiation is pre-established consumer acceptance of the process.  It is unrealistic to invest in major food irradiation facilities and await the development of a sufficient market demand. 

A similar source and recipient organism leads to greater consumer acceptability of the end product. 

For example, the transfer of trout to a salmon was considered acceptable.  It was considered more unnatural and more unacceptable to transfer genes between fish and vegetables etc.

Navigation: Home Page   Comment   Education   Videos