GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Consumers are confused between foods labeled as “organic” and “nongenetically modified,” according to a study led by a University of Florida professor.
In fact, researchers found that some consumers view the two labels as synonymous.
When Congress approved the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard in June 2016, lawmakers allowed companies two years — until June 2018 — to label their genetically modified (GM) food by text, symbol or an electronic digital link such as a QR code.
The QR code is a machine-readable optical label that displays information when scanned.
Besides QR codes, companies can label GM foods by adding words like: “contains genetically modified ingredients” in plain text on the packages, said Brandon McFadden, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of food and resource economics, and lead author of the study.
McFadden and Purdue University agricultural economics professor Jayson Lusk conducted their research to gauge consumers’ willingness to pay for food labeled as GM vs. non-GM. They conducted a national survey of 1,132 respondents.
Specifically, researchers wanted to know how much consumers were willing to spend on food labeled as “USDA Organic” vs. that labeled “Non-GMO Project Verified.”
Genetically modified material is not allowed in food labeled “USDA Organic,” while “Non-GMO Project” means the food has no more than 0.9 percent GM characteristics, according to the study.
In this study, when consumers looked at packages of Granola bars labeled “non-GMO Project,” they were willing to spend 35 cents more than for the boxes that had text that read, “contains genetically engineered ingredients.”
With the “USDA Organic” label, consumers were willing to pay 9 cents more. With apples, respondents were willing to pay 35 cents more for those labeled “non-GMO Project” and 40 cents more for those labeled “USDA Organic.”
Participants’ responses led McFadden to conclude that consumers don’t distinguish definitions of the two food labels.
“For example, it’s possible that a product labeled, ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ more clearly communicates the absence of GM ingredients than a product labeled ‘USDA Organic,'” said McFadden.
In addition to willingness to pay for GM- and non-GM foods, researchers also wanted to know how much consumers were willing to pay for food labeled as GM if that information came from a Quick Response — or QR — code.
Study results showed consumers are willing to pay more for genetically modified food if the information is provided by a QR code.
“This finding indicates that many of the study respondents did not scan the QR code,” McFadden said.
That’s because if all respondents scanned the QR code, there would not be a significant difference in their willingness to pay, he said.
Since there is a significant difference, one can assume that many respondents did not scan the QR code, McFadden said.
“It is possible that over time, consumers will become more familiar with QR codes and be more likely to scan them,” he said.
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