Mandatory labeling of GM foods may reduce customer purchases

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Labels warning customers that products contain ingredients from genetically modified plants can reduce sales, at least in the short term, according to a new study by a research team including an agricultural economist from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The study analyzed data on Vermont’s sales trends after a law requiring genetically modified food, or GE, labels came into effect – the only mandatory GE labeling policy nationwide. state that has ever been implemented in the United States.

The researchers found that after the law was implemented, sales of foods labeled as containing genetically modified ingredients decreased by 5.9%. Meanwhile, sales of products labeled as not containing genetically modified ingredients increased by 2.5% and sales of organic products – which by law cannot contain genetically modified ingredients – increased. by 1.7%.

According to the researchers, GMOs and genetically modified organisms, often referred to as GMOs, are essentially the same thing but used in different contexts, with both referring to humans modifying an organism’s DNA or RNA. For example, scientists have modified the genes of potatoes to make them more resistant to browning.

Linlin Fan, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Penn State, said the findings could give clues as to how a new law mandating nationwide labels on genetically modified foods in the United States will affect crop trends. sales.

“We know GM products are safe, but many fear that mandatory labeling will lead people to reject these products and increase food insecurity issues,” Fan said. “Although we saw a slight drop in sales, it was not a large effect, and we also found that attitudes towards GE products improved over time.”

The study was published recently in the journal Food Policy.

The researchers noted that foods containing GM plants have been available since the 1990s. On January 1, 2022, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard went into effect in the United States. The law requires manufacturers to label genetically modified foods, which the law defines as those “that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified by certain laboratory techniques and cannot be created by conventional breeding or found in nature.”

According to Fan, many food manufacturers have traditionally opposed such laws, fearing such labels have the potential to hurt sales of GM products.

“While studies have consistently shown that GM products are safe to eat, approximately 50% of US consumers believe GM and GMO products are worse for their health than non-GM products,” Fan said. “We wanted to analyze the effects of Vermont’s mandatory labeling law as a case study to see how the new state law might affect sales of GE products.”

For the study, researchers analyzed sales data from InfoScan, an Information Resources Inc. system that includes barcode-level sales records at major regional and national retail chains. They compared data from Vermont in 2016 after the state implemented Bill 120 to data from Oregon and Washington, which were about to pass mandatory GE labeling legislation in the US. statewide, but failed to do so.

The data included sales records of canned soups labeled as containing genetically modified ingredients, as required by the new law. The researchers also studied sales trends for organic products and products labeled “GMO-free”, as these could be considered alternatives for customers who did not wish to purchase GE-labeled products.

The researchers found that while sales of GE-labeled foods declined while the law was in effect, that trend reversed once the law was repealed.

“Once the law was no longer in effect, sales of GE-labeled products actually increased by 6%, suggesting improved attitudes toward GE products over time,” Fan said. “It could be because people have become more familiar and comfortable with these products.”

While it’s still too early to know how the new national biotechnology-derived food disclosure standard will affect sales of GM products, Fan said, the effects may be less than what they found in their current study. .

“Vermont’s law was stricter than the new policy passed earlier this year,” she said. “Vermont required products containing at least 0.9% GM ingredients to have a disclaimer. The new national law has a higher threshold of 5%. Also, Vermont law required a written disclaimer on the tag, but with federal law there are other options like a smart tag that you scan with your phone.

Fan said that in the future, additional studies may be conducted on the effects of the new law on the national standard for disclosure of foods derived from biotechnology, as well as the long-term effects of these policies.

Andrew W. Stevens, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Betty Thomas, Bryant Christie Inc., also contributed to this work.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture helped support this research.

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