COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio State University survey shows that some seniors and low-income individuals may have trouble accessing electronic product codes on food labels indicating the item contains genetically modified ingredients.
The vast majority in the survey (93.8 percent) stated they could get to the information from labels even if it were in electronic form. But among those 65 or older and earning less than $15,000 a year, 25 percent said that, while shopping, they do not have a smartphone with wireless internet and could not make phone calls. And not having internet or a phone in a store could prevent them from seeing the online information linked to the electronic product code on the product label.
“Disclosure by electronic means has promise, but there needs to be some concern about how to reach particular demographic groups that are still on the other side of the digital divide,” said Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural economics in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. Roe led the study with Craig Berning, a recent department graduate.
Most who responded to the survey (80.9 percent) stated they were interested in knowing if their food contained genetically modified ingredients. However, only 63.9 percent of respondents said they are “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to use their smartphone or in-store scanner methods to find out.
The online survey polled 525 people across the U.S. It was done last fall, just months after a federal law went into effect requiring companies to disclose genetically modified ingredients in their products starting in July 2018. Companies have the option of revealing those ingredients via symbols, electronic or digital links, or phone numbers. Before the federal law was passed, Vermont had required that foods containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled with the words “Partially produced with genetic engineering.”
Before high-tech options for disclosure of genetically modified ingredients in foods can move forward, the U.S. Congress has ordered a study on the feasibility of online disclosure to ensure that it works for all Americans.
The Ohio State survey was conducted to see if people would seek out information about genetically modified ingredients on a product if the information were presented on the label through a digital link, a toll-free phone number or a QR code, which is a matrix of tiny black and white boxes put together in a square that when scanned by a smartphone can reveal information about a product.
The Ohio State study was unaffiliated with the federal study. However, the findings from the Ohio State survey could be useful to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to highlight particular demographic groups that may require additional attention to ensure the disclosed information is universally accessible, Roe said. The USDA is responsible for implementing the federal law requiring that food companies reveal to consumers when genetically modified ingredients are present.
“This gives the USDA more data as they consider the evidence as to whether this method of electronic disclosure is widely accessible to the general population,” he said.
Genetically modified foods contain substances whose genes were manipulated to create certain traits. For example, some seeds of corn and soybeans have been genetically modified to enable them to fend off certain diseases.
An estimated 70 to 80 percent of food eaten in the U.S. contains ingredients that are genetically modified. If all of them were labeled with a statement saying they have genetically engineered ingredients, that could lead to a “numbing effect” over time in which consumers stop paying attention, Roe pointed out.
“Consumers could start to think ‘Wow, everything has genetically modified ingredients. I’m still alive and healthy. Maybe this issue isn’t relevant for me,’ ” Roe said. “That’s one possible outcome.”
Roe is the Van Buren Professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics and leads the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative, a collection of researchers, practitioners and students who collaborate to promote the reduction and redirection of food waste as an integral part of a healthy and sustainable food system.