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 Public Acceptance of Food Biotechnology in the USA
By
Les Rothenberg and Darryl Macer
 
Keywords:  United States of America; Public acceptance; Labelling. 
Correct citation: Rothenberg, L. and Macer, D. (1995), "Public Acceptance of Food Biotechnology in the USA." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 24, p. 10­13.

In the USA, clearly a significant effort has been invested in prospecting consumer acceptance of food biotechnology. The effort companies will put into addressing the ethical concerns of US consumers may be a determining factor for the success or failure of their biotechnological products. Outside the USA, interest groups are waiting to see whether the genetically modified food in the USA will find a market.

Public acceptance of a product or technology can be measured in many ways, including public opinion surveys and the manufacturers' or producers' sales reports. However, the measurements may be only informative in the short­term, as both opinions and sales may change dramatically.
A 1993 study by Hoban and Kendall on consumer attitudes about food biotechnology found numerous conflicting attitudes which they characterized as reflective of the US public's "love­hate" relationship with science. This essentially amounts to a perception that more applications of technology are simultaneously found desirable and risky, a phenomenon which is also seen in other countries.
In the same study, people were asked about their willingness to buy food produced through biotechnology compared to conventional alternatives. Two possibilities were sketched. Firstly, a product produced by biotechnology that would be about 10 per cent cheaper but of the same quality compared to the conventionally­produced alternative. Secondly, a product produced by biotechnology that would be of improved quality or taste, but would be 10 per cent more expensive than its conventional alternative. In their response, people expressed to be more willing to buy a cheaper biotechnology product of the same quality, than a more expensive but higher quality biotechnology product (see table).
The first two food products produced by the use of biotechnology which attracted major attention are Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbgh or rbST) to enhance milk production per cow, and Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato which contains an introduced DNA sequence which slows the softening process after picking. According to Calgene, this characteristic will improve its taste, since it enables the longer ripening of the tomato on the vine. In this respect, the above sketched example of the less expensive/same quality product could be compared with (according to the claims of the producer) milk produced by the use of Monsanto's bST, and the improved quality/more expensive biotechnology product with the claims of Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato.
Although the results of Hoban's and Kendall's study regarding the price/quality relation of biotechnology products leads to the expectation that people in the USA would be more interested in bST milk than in the Flavr Savr tomato, people respond differently when asked directly. When asked what is more acceptable, the US public sees the Flavr Savr tomato in a more favourable light than bST. Which of the two attitudes would finally be the dominant factor to the US consumers' buying behaviour is unclear.

Consumer acceptance in practice
Since in the USA these two products are among the first biotechnology food products on the market, it is interesting to compare the actual sales of these products with the results of the questionnaires held before their introduction. It is difficult to make hard statements about their success or failure because (a) the market positions of these two products are a very political issue since the interests in whether these products will become a failure or a success are high; and (b) the products were introduced only recently. In terms of actual sales, Monsanto reported that its agricultural business overall created an 18 per cent rise in corporate profits for the first quarter of 1995. It is unclear to what extent Posilac, Monsanto's trade mark of bST, contributed to that profit statement. In 1994, Posilac had a reported slight loss because of startup and fixed costs. Monsanto has reported that more than 14 million doses of the product have been sold in its first year to about 11 per cent of the US dairy farmers who operate about 13,000 dairy farms, or about 30 per cent of the US dairy cow herd.
For its part, Calgene has reported sluggish sales of the Flavr Savr tomato due to picking, packing and shipping problems that have resulted in bruised tomatoes. As of early 1995, the tomatoes had only been sold in 733 Midwest and West coast stores, but Calgene predicted this would increase to 1,500 stores by summer 1995. In July 1995, the leading consumer magazine in the USA, Consumer Reports, conducted a taste test of the Flavr Savr and found them "slightly better than supermarket tomatoes but are not worth their premium price." The publisher of the magazine, Consumers Union, has been critical of the marketing of genetically­engineered food products.

Willingness in USA to buy food produced trough biotechnology 
compared to conventional food
Improved quality or taste
10 percent more expensive
Same quality
10 percent cheaper
Less willing
48 %
Less willing
31 %
More willing
43 %
More willing
59 %
No difference
9 %
No difference
10 %
Source: T.J. Hoban and P.A. Kendall (1993), Consumer Attitudes about Food Biotechnology. Project report No.91-EXCA-3-0155. Washington DC: US Department of Agriculture, p.13.

Labelling
The extent to which biotechnology products are bought does not only depend on public concern, but also on the way they are introduced, such as distribution policy (availability), and labelling. In the case of bST in the USA, consumers are restricted in their choice as the bST milk is not labelled as such. Only a few supermarkets have guaranteed that they will not sell milk from treated cows. In this sense, the Flavr Savr tomato is a better test case of consumer preferences, since it is marketed as a premium product and labelled as such.
What is also clear from the Hoban and Kendall study is that the US public generally "show considerable interest in food labels" with 52 per cent saying they pay "a lot of attention" to such labels and another 30 per cent saying they usually pay at least "some" attention. The issue of labelling has divided food biotechnology processors and manufacturers in the USA. Monsanto has fought to keep labels off milk produced from cows treated with their bST. Calgene Fresh, distributor and marketer of the Flavr Savr, voluntarily labels the tomatoes in order to justify their premium price.
Labelling is the key issue for certain pressure groups, such as the Pure Food Campaign, led by Jeremy Rifkin. Much of the Campaign's protests have addressed bST. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared the use of the hormone safe and requires no labelling for it. This was, however, against the will of the Campaign. "We believe that [the government] inadequately looked at the environmental issues, the health and safety issues and the labelling issues" states Rifkin as quoted in Scientific American. Concerns about an increasing occurrence of mastitis, a bacterial infection of the cow udder, and a related higher use of antibiotics was one of the issues that played a role in the European Union discussion to extend the moratorium on bST to the year 2000.

People's trust in information
Recent surveys reflect public distrust of governmental regulators and food processors and manufacturers, as well as mixed levels of trust in farmers' and farm groups' concern about product safety. Van Ravenswaay concludes in a 1995 report entitled "Public perceptions of agrochemicals" for the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, on the basis of a review of many US surveys of public opinion regarding agricultural technology in general: "The majority of the public does not trust the government to set appropriate safety standards or to enforce them. There is public skepticism about whether farmers ensure their products' safety. Public opinion is split over whether the scientific community truthfully represents the health risks from pesticides. The public sees the news media as tending to sensationalize as well as providing timely warnings. Finally, public­policy makers tend to rank priorities on the basis of relative risks ­ not on the basis of public trust or confidence. For all these reasons, the importance of restoring trust and confidence during the setting of policy priorities needs reconsideration and reaffirmation."
Of these two symbolic products, bST has certainly been the most successful in terms of market penetration, perhaps because it is the least visible to the ultimate consumer. The initial flurry of concerns about bST in the USA has mainly disappeared, and most milk consumers are clearly unaware of whether the cows providing the milk are treated with bST or not. This relative success of bST over the Flavr Savr may be attributable to the low availability and price differential of the latter.
No general conclusions can be drawn about the potential market for food biotechnology in the USA. Industry is neverthelss enthusiastic about the possibilities: not only has genetically­engineered rennet found its way into 65 per cent of all US produced cheese, but also a wide variety of fruits, vegetable and fish products are to be introduced in the US market in the near future. Price, perceptions of safety, and the visibility of the product as being genetically modified may determine their levels of acceptance. Public acceptance, however, will not be the only determinant since it is obvious that the US food industry is committed to the further development and marketing of biotechnological food products.
The US experience can in no way be seen as representative of how consumers in other countries will react to the introduction on biotechnological food products, but the experience can be useful in understanding at least some of the issues that may arise. What the role of government should be towards the introduction of these products is one example. Should regulatory agencies be used as enthusiastic promotors of such products, as was the case in the USA, or should they play a more professional, objective, 'arms­length' role given the worldwide skepticism about the credibility of regulatory agencies as found in opinion surveys.
Les Rothenberg*/Darryl Macer**

*Ethics Consulting, 16751 Edgar Street, Pacific Palisades, CA, 90272­3226 USA. Phone/Fax (+1) 310 454 9933; E­mail values@biotechnet.com
**Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, 305 Japan. Phone (+81) 298 53 4662; Fax (+81) 298 53 6614; E­mail macer@sakura.cc.tsukuba.ac.jp

Sources
Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (1995), Public Perceptions of Agrochemicals. Task force report no. 123. Ames, Iowa, USA: Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. January 1995, p.27.

T.J. Hoban and P.A. Kendall (1993), Consumer Attitudes about Food Biotechnology. Project report #91­EXCA­3­0155. Washington DC: US Department of Agriculture.

Gary Stix (1995), "A Recombinant Feast: New bioengineered crops move toward market". Scientific American, March, p.20­21.

"Improving on Mother Nature?". Consumer Reports, vol. 60, July 1995, pp. 480­481.

R.T. King Jr (1995), "Low­tech Woe Slows Calgene's Super Tomato." Wall Street Journal, 11 April, p. B1.

D.R.J. Macer (1994), Bioethics for the People by the People. Christchurch, New Zealand: Eubios Ethics Institute.

A. Morton (1994), "Altered Traits." Restaurant Business, vol. 93 (17), 20 Nov., pp. 44­48.

L. Rothenberg (1994) "Biotechnology's Issue of Public Credibility: Biotopic," Trends in Biotechnology, vol. 12, November, pp. 435­438.



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