Home » FMI’s Fikes: Consumers Distrust New Science, Big Biz More Than GMOs

FMI’s Fikes: Consumers Distrust New Science, Big Biz More Than GMOs

David Fikes, FMI VP of consumer/community affairs and communications, discusses consumer concerns about GMOs.
David Fikes, FMI VP of consumer/community affairs and communications, discusses consumer concerns about GMOs.

Last updated on June 14th, 2024 at 09:34 am

With the battle over food labeling still raging, manufacturers and retailers are struggling to understand the best and most cost-effective way to ease consumer fears surrounding GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. What they don’t realize, according to David Fikes, VP of consumer/community affairs and communication for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), is that consumers are less worried about any negative health effects of GMOs than they are worried that information is being hidden from them.

It’s a well-documented phenomenon that people are skeptical of new science, and they often distrust big business and government as well, noted Fikes at the 2016 Annual Meat Conference, held in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this year. Unfortunately for GMO supporters and producers, that skepticism comes to a head in the issue of GMOs.

“Consumer confusion about GMOs is justified,” said Fikes, noting that it takes a great deal of technical expertise to really understand genetic modification. “We tend as human beings to distrust or question that which exceeds our comprehension… And we especially tend to distrust things, not only when we don’t understand it, but when we fear or we’re told that there is information being withheld from us.”

The fear that scientists, businesses and the government are hiding something from consumers is driving much of the backlash retailers are seeing against GMOs. Activists “are backing off of the argument about fear of the unforeseen consequences. They’re backing off of the argument about it hasn’t been adequately tested. Because that just wasn’t getting as much traction with consumers,” said Fikes.

One of the reasons they’re backing off those arguments is that they are having a hard time proving them; Fikes noted that in more than 20 years, there has been no verified instance of GMOs harming consumers. However, as the industry has noticed, “right to know” activists are gaining traction, and consumers are increasingly demanding to know what is in the foods they buy, including whether or not they contain GMOs.

“There’s widespread interest in GMO labeling, but it’s more about labeling and less about GMOs specifically,” said Fikes.

A 2015 study conducted by FMI found that among consumers who don’t avoid GMOs and who wouldn’t avoid them even if they were labeled, 63 percent are still in support of labeling GM foods. Among all adult shoppers, that number increases to 68 percent. The study also examined whether education about GMOs would influence consumer desire for labeling. Researchers provided four different groups of people with either no information on GMOs or varying amounts of positive information from government agencies and concerns from consumer groups. There was almost no difference among consumers who received no information, only positive information or mixed information; 66 to 69 percent of consumers still wanted labels.

To give consumers what they want and to ease fears that companies are withholding information, food processors and manufacturers who do not disclose GMOs in their products need to rethink their stance, and in the hopes of simplifying that process, FMI is in support of a national labeling standard. However, said Fikes, because more than half of the products in a grocery store contain GMOs, it makes more sense to develop a non-GMO label than a GMO label. Not only does this reduce the burden on manufacturers, but also it would be easier for consumers to find labeled, non-GMO products than it would be for them to sift through GMO labels looking for the products without them, he said.

One change that Fikes and others are pushing is to call for “required disclosure” rather than mandatory labeling.

“The reason for that is we want some flexibility in the way in which we communicate that required disclosure. Whether it be through the SmartLabel, QR codes, whether it’s total package labeling for some products, or whether it is on the website of the company,” he said.

That being said, Fikes urged conference attendees to try to find better ways to educate the public on genetic modification. Because consumers are distrustful of new science and big business, Fikes believes that companies will have to use social media to inform their consumers “because that is the way most people are being educated these days,” he said. “They’re finding out their information through posts of friends and family who are sharing with them information through social media.”

He recommends engaging sources that consumers do trust—like farmers, doctors and local supermarkets—to share reliable materials online that attest to the safety of GMOs. However they choose to educate consumers, the food industry will need to get creative as it tries to pull GMOs out of what Fikes calls the “vortex of consumer skepticism of science.”

About the author

Shelby Team

The Shelby Report delivers complete grocery news and supermarket insights nationwide through the distribution of five monthly regional print and digital editions. Serving the retail food trade since 1967, The Shelby Report is “Region Wise. Nationwide.”

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