CORVALLIS, Ore. - A random survey of more than 800 Oregonians shows voters had a variety of reasons for favoring or rejecting a November, 2002 ballot measure that would have required foods that contained genetically engineered ingredients to include that information on the label.
Oregonians who said they voted against the measure had a laundry list of reasons, ranging from the unknown costs of the measure to their concerns over the impact on farmers.
The most common issue voiced by those who voted in favor of the measure was consumers' right to know what they are eating, though a handful of voters cited health and safety concerns.
The measure was voted down by a 70-30 margin.
The statewide telephone survey was conducted by Oregon State University researchers participating in a larger "Social Indicator Survey" administered by the University of Oregon Survey Research Laboratory. Results of the OSU study have been accepted for publication in the winter issue of The Journal of Consumer Affairs.
The survey also analyzed consumer awareness of new federal organic food regulations that prohibit use of bioengineering.
"Oregonians are clearly interested in labeling issues, yet Ballot Measure 27 in 2002 was handily defeated," said Deana Grobe, a research associate in the Family Policy Program in OSU's College of Health and Human Sciences. "We wondered why. Interestingly, very few of our survey respondents who said they voted yes cited safety issues. They said they thought that consumers had a right to know what was in the food they were eating."
"Those voting no said they were more concerned about costs, how the measure was worded, and the impact on farmers than any potential safety issues," she added.
Genetically engineered foods were introduced to the U.S. marketplace in the mid-1990s as newly engineered corn and soybeans became widely available. According to co-principal investigator Carolyn Raab, a professor of nutrition and food management at OSU, two out of three processed food products already contain genetically modified components - often corn or soybeans.
"Many consumers aren't aware of that," said Raab, who also is a foods and nutrition specialist with the OSU Extension Service. "If they discover that a food they enjoy contains a genetically modified corn product, most will probably continue to eat it because they don't perceive a risk."
National surveys have shown consumer support for labeling as a way to make informed choices. The federal government doesn't require labeling of genetically modified foods that are considered "substantially equivalent" to their conventional counterparts.
In the Oregon survey, voters were more likely to favor state labeling if they were female, if someone in their household belonged to an environmental organization, or if their household had purchased organic food in the past six months.
A total of 76 percent of those surveyed said that someone in their household had purchased organic food within the last six months. Respondents varied widely on the frequency of their purchases, however. About 22 percent buy organic food often; 30 percent, sometimes; 24 percent, rarely; and 24 percent, never.
The survey revealed that women are more likely to purchase food labeled as organic, and more likely to want labels for genetically engineered food. Thirty-six percent of respondents said that they would be very or somewhat likely to buy food labeled as being genetically engineered; 59 percent said not likely or not at all.
Other surveys have also shown mixed consumer acceptance of genetically engineered food, the OSU researchers pointed out. Consumers are often skeptical about unfamiliar technologies used in food production, they added.
Oregon became the first state to vote on whether genetically engineered foods should be labeled.
"The timing could have influenced the vote because of the downturn in the state's economy, and the fact that this was still a fairly new issue," Raab said. "Some people raised the concern that labeling should be a federal issue, not a state one."
The cost to Oregon producers, processors, regulators and consumers would need further study, she added.
"Interest in the labeling issue may continue."