Presentation Title

The USDA’s Bioengineering Disclosure Standard does not match public opinion on how best to label genetically modified foods: results of a content analysis of public comments in the Federal Register

Abstract

Genetically modified foods (GMF) entered the US food supply in 1994, and controversy over whether and how to label them has persisted ever since. Consumer polls regularly show that the majority of Americans believe that GMF should be labeled, and proponents of GMF labeling frequently cite the themes of environmental harm, corporate control of the food supply, and the “right to know” if foods contain GM ingredients. In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Biotechnology Disclosure Act was finalized and required labeling of genetically modified foods beginning in 2020, with a mandatory compliance date of January 2022. This research evaluates the degree to which the USDA’s labeling plan matches public opinion, through a quantitative content analysis of public comments submitted to the USDA between 2018-2019. Over 14,000 comments were analyzed by a team of 8 coders, and overall agreement between coders was “moderate” (>0.67) based on Krippendoff’s inter-coder reliability procedure. Preliminary results suggest that the USDA’s plan does not align with public comments. Of the 22% of comments mentioning the USDA’s plan to allow electronic disclosures, 92% were opposed to this option. Of the 30% of comments discussing the USDA’s plan to use the term “bioengineered” instead of “GMO,” 97% were opposed to this use of the less familiar term bioengineered. Of the 27% of comments that commented on how the USDA identifies bioengineered ingredients, 99% responded that this list should include refined ingredients (sugar, oils, etc), and only 1% of the comments were aligned with the USDA’s plan to only require labels on foods containing detectable modified DNA. Based on an analysis of these public comments, the USDA’s labeling plan does not provide the level of transparency desired by labeling advocates. Rather than providing meaningful information, and/or driving the food industry to reformulate their products, the USDA’s labeling plan may instead continue to drive the informational asymmetry between producers and consumers and is likely to add even more fuel to the fire of the debate surrounding the right to know.

Primary Faculty Mentor Name

Jane Kolodinsky, PhD

Status

Graduate

Student College

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Program/Major

Food Systems

Primary Research Category

Food & Environment Studies

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The USDA’s Bioengineering Disclosure Standard does not match public opinion on how best to label genetically modified foods: results of a content analysis of public comments in the Federal Register

Genetically modified foods (GMF) entered the US food supply in 1994, and controversy over whether and how to label them has persisted ever since. Consumer polls regularly show that the majority of Americans believe that GMF should be labeled, and proponents of GMF labeling frequently cite the themes of environmental harm, corporate control of the food supply, and the “right to know” if foods contain GM ingredients. In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Biotechnology Disclosure Act was finalized and required labeling of genetically modified foods beginning in 2020, with a mandatory compliance date of January 2022. This research evaluates the degree to which the USDA’s labeling plan matches public opinion, through a quantitative content analysis of public comments submitted to the USDA between 2018-2019. Over 14,000 comments were analyzed by a team of 8 coders, and overall agreement between coders was “moderate” (>0.67) based on Krippendoff’s inter-coder reliability procedure. Preliminary results suggest that the USDA’s plan does not align with public comments. Of the 22% of comments mentioning the USDA’s plan to allow electronic disclosures, 92% were opposed to this option. Of the 30% of comments discussing the USDA’s plan to use the term “bioengineered” instead of “GMO,” 97% were opposed to this use of the less familiar term bioengineered. Of the 27% of comments that commented on how the USDA identifies bioengineered ingredients, 99% responded that this list should include refined ingredients (sugar, oils, etc), and only 1% of the comments were aligned with the USDA’s plan to only require labels on foods containing detectable modified DNA. Based on an analysis of these public comments, the USDA’s labeling plan does not provide the level of transparency desired by labeling advocates. Rather than providing meaningful information, and/or driving the food industry to reformulate their products, the USDA’s labeling plan may instead continue to drive the informational asymmetry between producers and consumers and is likely to add even more fuel to the fire of the debate surrounding the right to know.