Attitudes toward Labeling GMO Food in St. Louis

Ever since genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been used in food, the practice has been controversial due to environmental and human health concerns. Whole Foods Market (WFM) placed itself at the center of the controversy by reversing its opposition to GMOs in food.

by, Don Fitz, Ph.D., Daniel Romano, B.A., Barbara Chicherio, M.S.W.

You can find a PDF version of this report at the bottom of this page.

For over 10 years, polls have shown that 85–96% of Americans support labeling of GMO food. This survey used face-to-face interviews with targeted groups, including WFM customers. Interviews were conducted in St. Louis, Missouri home to Monsanto, which is the major producer of GMOs.

Interviewers asked four brief questions:
1. Do you know what a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is?
2. Would you serve food containing GMOs to your family?
3. Do you think food containing GMOs should be labeled?
4. Do you assume that the foods you buy at Whole Foods Market are free of GMOs?

Interviews were completed with 315 persons in five groups: shoppers at WFM; shoppers at Soulard Market; persons having brunch at Black Bear Bakery; Environmental Studies students; and, persons at a variety of progressive events. There were no gender differences between the groups interviewed.

Over 90% of every group wanted labels on food with GMOs (94.6% of all interviewees). The consistent desire for labels meant that this was the only interview question for which there was not a statistically significant difference between groups. Several patterns emerged for other interview items.

First, Soulard Market, which caters to lower income customers, had over a third of its customers not knowing what GMOs are and had the largest proportion not answering if they would serve GMOs to their families. Nevertheless, they wanted food with them to be labeled.

Second, even though a majority of Environmental Studies students said that they would serve GMO food to their families, they expressed the same overwhelming desire for labeling.

Noteworthy findings occurred for WFM customers. They were the least likely of any group to serve GMO food to their families. Yet, they were the most likely to expect food at WFM to be free of GMOs. It also appears that WFM instructs its employees to tell customers that it labels GM food even though it does not do so. (WFM labels only food that is free of GMOs.)

WFM could develop a serious credibility problem if its customers discover that it is not only selling food with GMOs but is not forewarning them of what it is doing. The authors suggest several actions that WFM could take to maintain its image of a corporation concerned with the quality of its food.

It was not surprising to find a nearly uniform desire for labeling among progressives, who are often hostile to Monsanto. Since their attitudes were shared by every other group, this study confirms that those who advocate not putting labels on GMO food are out of step with consumer preferences.

Report

Genetic modification (GM) consists of modifying the genetic structure of an organism by inserting a gene or altering an existing gene. The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO). GMOs are now used extensively in food.

Whole Foods Market (WFM) presents itself as the retail outlet for food of such good quality that it justifies high prices. WFM recently placed itself in the center of a dispute concerning GMOs in food when, in January 2011, it significantly changed its position. WFM had previously opposed the USDA’s (US Department of Agriculture) deregulation of GMO alfalfa, which would allow it to be planted anywhere. The USDA presented two options: full deregulation or conditional deregulation that would compel Monsanto to agree to pay compensation to a farmer “for any losses related to the contamination of his crop.” WFM supported the second option, stating on their blog that they support coexistence though they “continue to have reservations about GE [genetically engineered] crops.” [1]

“Coexistence,” however, means accepting the planting of this GMO crop and the repercussions that come from it. To many, it appeared that WFM had abandoned efforts to keep GMOs out of food.

Since it was first introduced, the process of putting GMOs into food has been controversial. Those who advocate creating GMOs claim that they will increase crop yields and reduce the need for pesticides. [2] But critics charge that GM can harm beneficial species, increase the use of monocultures and increase, rather than decrease, pesticide usage. [3] They point out that over two-thirds of GM is done for the purpose of making crops resistant to pesticides. [4] They also argue that no one spends money to increase pesticide resistance unless they plan to use pesticides and that the result is a “pesticide treadmill” of using ever-increasing amounts as insects evolve pesticide resistance. [5]

Many note that the effects of GMOs on crop yields are highly variable with the result being no change or a slightly decreased yield. [6] Organic farmers believe that other methods exist to increase yield without the potential dangers of pesticide usage. [7]

Perhaps the most controversial issue has been the effects of GMOs on human health. Industry spokespersons often claim that no one has ever been harmed by consuming a GMO. [8] Critics dispute this on two grounds. First, there has been such a rush to use GMOs (with farmers often having little to no choice of which seeds to purchase) that it is hard to compare health effects of GMO and non-GMO food when virtually all of many types of food have GMOs.

They also charge that there is ample documentation of health as well as ecological dangers from GMO food:

Health and safety risks posed by genetically engineered foods include: the spread of antibiotic resistance; new or increased levels of toxins in foods; hidden allergens; higher incidence of food contamination due to more factory-style farms; nutrient depletion resulting from reduced genetic diversity in the food supply… Those most at risk form engineered foods are the most vulnerable — children, the elderly, the chronically ill and the poor. [9]

Safe food activists have two reactions to the dispute surrounding the unknown dangers of GMOs in food. Many say that GMOs should be banned from food because we do not know the true health and environmental consequences. A second response is that food containing GMOs should be clearly labeled so that consumers can make an informed choice of whether they want to purchase it.

Monsanto and WFM

Two companies are of particular interest in this debate. First is Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of GMOs. Monsanto opposes labeling GMO food, insisting that there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO food and that putting a label on GMO food would unjustly bias consumers against it. Early in the debate on GMOs in food, the Kansas City Star quoted Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto, as saying “If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.” [10]

Skeptics respond that, if a company were proud of its product and confident that it would be positive for consumers, then it should eagerly jump at the opportunity to label it rather than putting effort into preventing the public from knowing what the food contains. Accusing Monsanto of hypocrisy, they charge that the company’s lawyers argue in court that all of their GMOs should receive patents because they are novel organisms. Yet their lobbyists try to convince lawmakers that GMO food must not be labeled because it is “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO food. The question is: How GMO food can be so different as to deserve a patent while simultaneously be so equivalent as not to be labeled?

The other company of interest is, of course, Whole Foods Market. In addition to sparking dissatisfaction with its reversal on GMOs in alfalfa, WFM employees tell customers that food it sells is labeled if it has GMOs. But this is not the case. WFM actually labels food which is free of GMOs and leaves GMO food on its shelves unlabeled.

A series of polls indicate that most Americans do not agree with positions of Monsanto and WFM. Oxygen Media and the Markle Foundation reported that, in November 2000, “85% of Americans favor labeling genetically engineered foods.” [11]

The next year, an ABC News Poll found that the number wanting labels on GM food jumped to 93%. [12] That level of desire for labels on GM food stayed the same during the next 10 years. That poll noted that “Such near-unanimity in public opinion is rare” and that only a third of the public believed that GM food is safe. A mere 5% of those surveyed were more likely to buy GM food while 52% said they would be more likely to buy organic food.

A few years later Consumer Reports found 95% of 1001 people surveyed in October 2008 felt that “food products made from genetically engineered animals should be labeled as such.” [13] That poll also found that 68% of women felt they took “primary responsibility for food shopping” which is why their attitude toward GMO food is particularly important.

Thomson Reuters teamed with National Public Radio to interview 3025 Americans in October 2010 and found “93% of respondents felt that genetically engineered foods should be labeled.” [14] A very recent poll by MSNBC reported that in March 2011 “96% of respondents voted strongly in favor of labeling genetically modified foods. [15] However, this was an online poll, meaning that respondents were self-selected.

Previous surveys appear to be by telephone or online rather than face-to-face. They were also national, rather than focusing on a particular community or a target group, such as those shopping at WFM.

The authors surveyed attitudes toward GMO foods in St. Louis, home to Monsanto’s corporate headquarters. Since many people in St. Louis know someone who works at Monsanto, it is possible that attitudes would differ from the rest of the US. Rather than obtaining a random sample, the survey targeted specific groups. These included persons in two WFM parking lots, shoppers at a market catering to low income customers, those eating brunch in a bakery, students in an Environmental Studies class, and attendees at a variety of progressive events in the St. Louis area.

A survey was designed to determine if there is difference in knowledge of GMOs, willingness to eat GMO food, desire to have GMO food labeled and expectations concerning WFM. In particular, it allowed for contrasts between presumably wealthier persons at WFM and those at a market whose customers have modest incomes. It also explored differences between attitudes of progressives, who are presumably hostile to GMOs, and those with unknown political leanings.

Method

During meetings of Safe Food Action St. Louis in October and November 2011 the authors and several others drafted a very brief survey to address four questions:

1. Do you know what a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is? (yes or no)
2. Would you serve food containing GMOs to your family? (yes or no)
3. Do you think food containing GMOs should be labeled? (yes or no)
4. Do you assume that the foods you buy at Whole Foods Market are free of GMOs? (yes, no or “I do not shop at Whole Foods.”)

Interviews were conducted in one of two ways. When people were inside and seated, the interviewer passed out cards, asked people to take 2 or 3 minutes to complete them and collected the responses. When people were outside, the interviewer followed the protocol below.

Prior to taking the survey to several locations, the authors spent 30 minutes training three additional people in conducting brief interviews. Most of the time was spent role playing how to break off a conversation.

The interviewer approached a person, saying “Hi, I’m ________ with Safe Food Action St. Louis. “We’re conducting a survey on food safety. Could I ask you a few questions?”

If the person said something like “No” or “I’m too busy” the interviewer thanked the person and went to someone else.

If the person asked the interviewer “What is your group?” the response was, “Just get on a computer and google Safe Food Action St. Louis.”

If the person asked the interviewer “Can I fill out the card inside?” the response was, “I’m sorry, but I might not be here when you get out so I need to get it now.”

As the person answered the questions, the interviewer checked the person’s gender. Interviewers agreed that if they were asked to leave any location that they would do so.

Interviews were conducted (or surveys were completed) at the following locations:

1. 26 at a Kwanzaa celebration on December 3, 2011;
2. 33 at the Left Wing School on December 4, 2011;
3. 2 at an Occupy St. Louis meeting on December 6, 2011;
4. 50 at WFM parking lots in Brentwood (20) and West County (30) on December 10, 2011;
5. 96 at Soulard Market on December 17, 2011;
6. 37 during brunch at Black Bear Bakery on December 17, 2011;
7. 11 at a Martin Luther King celebration on January 8, 2012;
8. 42 at an Environmental Studies class at a St. Louis area university on January 17, 2012;
9. 9 at an Organic Consumers Association picket of Monsanto on January 24, 2012; and,
10. 9 at a Community Arts and Movement Project dinner on January 25, 2012.

Outdoor interviews were conducted at locations 4, 5 and 9 and cards were distributed to participants at all other locations.

Results

Interviews were completed with 315 participants. Since interviewers were attempting to gather responses rapidly from people at WFM and Soulard Market, it would not have been feasible to gather data on the number of persons who either declined to be interviewed or with whom the interviewer broke off the conversation. However, interviewers estimated that 75% to 90% of those approached completed the survey.

The meeting of Occupy St. Louis was at the home of a person threatened with foreclosure. Since the meeting began immediately after survey cards were distributed, only 2 of about 50 were returned. The remainder did not decline the survey — they shifted focus to the topic for the meeting. At all other locations, interviewers estimate that 100% of those approached returned the cards completed.

For analysis, data was grouped as follows:

Group A, “Whole Foods Parking Lot” includes the 50 persons interviewed at the two WFM locations.
Group B, “Soulard Market” includes 96 persons interviewed;
Group C, “Black Bear Bakery” includes 37 persons having brunch;
Group D, “Environmental Studies Students” includes 42 students at a St. Louis area university; and,
Group E, “St. Louis Progressives” includes 90 persons providing responses at locations 1, 2, 3, 7, 9 and 10.

Differences between these five groups for gender and the four survey items were contrasted with chi-square analyses.

Gender

Though the total population was almost perfectly split for gender (50.5% male, 49.5% female), Figure 1 shows small differences between groups. Females predominated at WFM (60%) and Environmental Studies students (54.8%) while males predominated at Black Bear Bakery (56.8%) and St. Louis progressives (57.8%) and the split was almost equal at Soulard Market (51.0% female). Analysis revealed that differences were not significant [chi-square (4) = 5.25, n.s.], meaning that other contrasts between groups could not be explained by varying proportions of men and women.

Knowledge of GMOs

Figure 2 show differences in groups’ responses to the question “Do you know what a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is?” [chi-square (4) = 35.52, p <.001] All interviewees in all groups answered the question. The majority of persons in every group said “yes,” but the greatest portion of “no” responses was given by shoppers at Soulard Market (37.5%), which is consistent with the expectation that they represent a population with less income and education. They were followed by those at Black Bear Bakery (27.0%) and WFM ( 24.0%) in giving responses of “no.” Very few Environmental Studies students (7.1%) or St. Louis progressives (6.7%) reported being unfamiliar with GMOs.

Willingness to serve GMOs to families

Figure 3 indicates that the five groups responded very differently to the question “Would you serve food containing GMOs to your family?” [chi-square (4) = 29.98, p < 001] Environmental Studies students were the only group with a majority (54.8%) saying yes. A minority of Soulard Market shoppers (20.8%), St. Louis progressives (20.0%), Black Bear Bakery customers (13.5%) and WFM shoppers (10.0%) responded positively.

More people at Soulard Market (22) did not answer the question than did those in groups A, C, D and E (3, 2, 1, 3, respectively). This is consistent with Soulard Market shoppers having the largest proportion of shoppers not knowing what a GMO is.

Yet, at locations beside Soulard Market, respondents were generally willing to say whether they would serve GMOs, even if they did not know what GMOs are. Soulard Market was the only location where the number of people refusing to answer whether they would serve GMOs (22) was more than half of the number saying that they did not know what GMOs are (36).

Labeling GMOs

Figure 4 illustrates answers to the question “Do you think food containing GMOs should be labeled?” For all 315 participants, 94.6% said “yes,” 2.5% said “no,” and 2.9% did not answer. This was the only survey item for which there was not a statistically significant difference. The overwhelming majority of people in every group wanted food with GMOs labeled. (Groups A–E: 96.0%, 93.8%, 97.3%, 90.5%, 95.6%) A small number in each group said that they could not answer the question because they did not know what a GMO is. (Groups A–E: 1, 3, 1, 1, 3)

This is an interesting pattern for Soulard Market shoppers. Though they included a large number unfamiliar with GMOs and a large number not answering whether they would feed GMOs to their family, they showed the same pattern of desiring labels on GMO food as did other groups.

Differences between Soulard Market shoppers and other groups disappeared for the question addressing labels. Many seemed to be saying “If I don’t know what a GMO is, I can’t tell you if I would serve it to my family.” But virtually all of them said “Regardless of whether or not I know what a GMO is, I want food with it to be labeled.”

Expectations of Labeling at WFM

Figure 5 shows the highly significant difference in answers to the question “Do you assume that the foods you buy at Whole Foods Market are free of GMOs?” [chi-square (8) = 37.82, p < 001] This was the only question for which a 5 X 3 chi-square was calculated because, in addition to “yes” and “no” answers, there was a third option “I do not shop at Whole Foods.” Several different patterns emerged.

Those at the WFM parking lot comprised the only group where a majority (54.0%) expected WFM to sell food free of GMOs. Obviously, there were very few people in this group who said that they did not shop at WFM. That six people would give this response reflects the fact that the survey was done in a parking lot which included stores in addition to WFM.

Those eating brunch at Black Bear Bakery were the only ones where a majority indicated that they did not shop at WFM (51.4%). An equal number (21.6%) answered “yes” and “no” to the question. A similar pattern appeared for those shopping at Soulard Market, with the most frequent answer being that they did not shop at WFM (35.4%), followed by “no” (33.3%) and “yes” (29.2%).

The Environmental Studies students were the only group for which the most frequent responses was that they did not expect WFM to label GMO food (47.6%). A few more expected GMO food to be labeled (28.6%) than did not shop at WFM (23.8%).

St. Louis progressives were equally likely to say that they did not expect WFM to label GMO food and that they did not shop at WFM (41.6%). They had the smallest number (13.3%) of any group expecting that WFM would label GMO food.

Discussion

Responses to several questions concerning attitudes toward GMOs in food were examined for five St. Louis groups: those in two Whole Foods parking lots, shoppers at Soulard Market, those having brunch at Black Bear Bakery, Environmental Studies students and a variety of St. Louis progressives. Each group had a unique profile for 3 of the 4 questions asked.

But the question for which there was no difference between groups suggests that attitudes toward labeling GMO food are the same near Monsanto’s corporate headquarters as in the rest of the US. The finding that 94.6% of participants want labels on GMO food is very similar to polls using random sampling techniques.

Though it might be expected that progressives, who are often hostile to Monsanto’s products, would be more insistent on labeling, every other group had the same view. Attitudes toward labeling were shared by those with a high enough income to go to WFM and those shopping at the more modestly priced Soulard Market. Though the majority of students said that they would serve GMO food, they also overwhelmingly desired that it be labeled.

The fact that those surveyed were not a random sample could be considered either a methodological weakness or strength. The study was designed to examine specific target groups rather than randomly sample the entire metropolitan area. For these groups, selection approximated randomness, since the available population was queried with very few refusing to participate. Since 95% of respondents with very different characteristics desired labeling despite significant differences concerning other issues, this is a strong suggestion that a very large proportion of St. Louis residents want labels on food containing GMOs.

Income, education and knowledge of GMOs

More than a third of shoppers at Soulard Market indicated that they did not know what a GMO is. They comprised 30.5% of the 315 surveyed but 71.0% of those who did not answer the question concerning whether they would feed GMO food to their families, suggesting that they did not want to say whether they would serve GMOs if they did not know what they were.

This is consistent with the authors’ interpretation that Soulard, which is adjacent to lower income neighborhoods in an older portion of St. Louis attracts shoppers who average fewer resources and less education. Similarly, the 2010 Thomson Reuters poll reported that “awareness of genetically engineered foods increased as income and education levels increased.” [16]

None of the other polls cited included a question concerning participants’ familiarity with GMOs, including the very extensive survey by Consumer Reports. The authors suggest that future polls ask the simple question of respondents’ understanding of GMOs since a large minority still seem unfamiliar with the term and that lack of awareness could easily affect their attitudes.

WFM issues

The most intriguing pattern from this survey emerged for WFM customers. They reported being the least likely of any group to serve GMO food to their families. Yet, they were the most likely to expect food at WFM to be free of GMOs. If WFM customers have the greatest dislike of serving GMOs but the greatest trust that WFM is selling them food without GMOs, then the company could have a serious problem if its customers discover that it is not only selling them food with GMOs but is not forewarning them of what it is doing.

As previously noted, WFM apparently instructs its employees to tell customers that it labels GM food when it does not. WFM only labels foods free of GMOs, failing to warn customers of food which could contain GMOs. In light of findings in this survey, WFM could discover that it has a very large credibility gap with those who purchase its products. If its customers do, in fact, have more economic resources than most Americans, they may not be shopping due to nearness of WFM to their residence and could easily change to another grocery store.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the two WFM parking lots were the only locations where interviewers were told to leave. Problems that WFM might have convincing its customers that its food is what they expect cannot be lessened if the company is inhospitable toward those seeking to ascertain customer preferences.

Recommendations to WFM

Given the potential problems for WFM that have been uncovered, the authors suggest several actions that it could take to maintain its image of a corporation concerned with the quality of its food.

1. WFM could stop stating that it is labeling foods that contain Genetically Modified Organisms when it is not doing so. It could educate its employees that it merely labels foods that are free of GMOs and does not alert customers to potential dangers by labeling food that does contain GMOs.
2. WFM could phase out the selling of GMO foods by decreasing its stock by 20% per year. Using 2012 as a baseline year for total amount of GMO food, WFM would have no more than 80% of that quantity of GMO food in 2013, 60% in 2014, 40% in 2015, 20% in 2016 and be completely free of GMOs by 2017.
3. WFM could voluntarily label all foods containing GMOs. After admitting that it has misled customers with a false claim that it is labeling GMO food, it could initiate a genuine effort to do so by requiring that all of its suppliers label food with GMOs.
4. WFM could reverse its position on alfalfa. It could state that the US Department of Agriculture should withdraw its approval of GMO alfalfa and should compensate all farmers whose crops are contaminated by pollen drift from GMO crops.
5. WFM could publicly state that coexisting with GMOs causes risk to human health, farming and wild species.
6. WFM could publicly state that it desires an end to all genetic engineering in agriculture, including forestry.

If WFM made the decisive response of admitting past mistakes and moving forward, it would be telling its customers that it is providing the safe food that they expect. The food industry in the US is wracked with a broad variety of potential hazards and WFM is particularly vulnerable because its customers expect a higher quality.

Throughout the series of currently cited polls, the overwhelming majority of Americans have indicated that they want to know what is in the food that they are serving to their families. This study confirms that this is true among two populations for whom it may not be obvious: those who are not sure what GMOs are; and, those who are willing to serve GMO food. If there have been changes in attitudes over time, it has been that the consensus has grown from about 85% wanting labeling to about 95% in recent years. Almost uniformly, Americans want the right to know what is in their food.

References

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7. Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. The Penguin Press, 160–161.]
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11. Hesman, T. (December 24, 2000). In the debate over labeling of biotech food, all parties seem to want it both ways. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, A1, A8.
12. Langer, G. (June 19, 2001). Poll: Skepticism of genetically modified foods. ABC News. Retrieved April 3, 2012 from http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567&page=1#.T09-xXm3Oho.
13. Consumer Reports National Research Center (November 11, 2008). Food-labeling poll 2008, NRC #2008.81. Retrieved April 4, 2012 from http://www.greenerchoices.org/pdf/foodpoll2008.pdf, 13.
14. Thomson Reuters (October, 2010). National survey of healthcare consumers: Genetically engineered food. Retrieved April 4, 2012 from http://www.factsforhealthcare.com/pressroom/NPR_report_GeneticEngineered..., 3]
15. Anada, R. (March 5, 2011). 96% want GM food labeled. thepeoplesvoice.org. Retrieved April 4, 2012 from http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12942:9.
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