Research on Genetically Modified Food Labels Published

A man and woman are grocery shopping and reading the label on a jar of food.
Image source: U.S. Food & Drug Administration

Community Development and Applied Economics Professor Jane Kolodinsky published a new article in the Journal of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, with co-authors UVM Mathematics and Statistics Professor Jeff Buzas, Nick Rose, Food Systems PhD candidate, and a colleague from the University of Kentucky, Associate Professor Yuging Zhang.

The publication is entitled, “Neither, either, or both? Who sees GM and non-GM food labels?” The research looked into factors associated with how often and whether consumers see labels for genetically modified (GM) and non-genetically modified (non-GM) foods. Consumers reported seeing the labeling for non-GM foods more frequently than labeling for GM foods over a four year period between 2018 and 2021.

The USDA label for genetically modified foods, a circle with bioengineered around the circle.In 2014, Vermont became the first state to require a GM disclosure using a simple statement: Produced or partially produced using genetic engineering. As such, it is one of the few states to have longitudinal data on consumer experiences with GM labeling before and after labeling laws went into effect. In mid-2016, national requirements for the labeling of genetically modified foods were mandated. Food manufacturers had until January 2022 to fully implement the law, but many were using a range of labeling options such as a disclosure statement, a symbol or QR code directing consumers to disclosure information before this date.

The logo for the Non-GMO projectKolodinsky and her colleagues have been studying Vermonters’ perspectives around GM labeling for over a decade. In the most recent study, they found fewer people reported seeing the term BE (bioengineered, the new term being used for genetically modified foods) than non-GM.

“This finding may be in part because many companies use a QR code to disclose if the product is bioengineered. This may lead to fewer consumers noticing the labeling and requires an extra step for them to find the information,” said Kolodinsky.

The new federal labeling requirements that fully took effect January 1, 2022 still allow food manufacturers to disclose the use of bionengineering with either a text label, USDA-approved logo or a QR code. Kolodinsky says the research from Vermont may suggest QR codes are a less effective disclosure strategy, and may be hindering consumers from being able to readily access information about whether a product is genetically modified or not.

“In order to find the information, the consumer has to know to look for the QR code, have a QR reader, have internet access and be able to scan the code, and then do this for every package in a shopping cart,” said Kolodinsky.

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