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Do European consumers buy GMO foods?

Final Report Summary - CONSUMERCHOICE (Do European consumers buy GMO foods?)

The CONSUMERCHOICE project was conducted following the 2004 introduction by the European Union of mandatory labelling for genetically modified (GM) foods, the widespread importation into European countries of GM animal feed and the rapid development of GM agriculture and products in many parts of the world. Its aim was to observe how European consumers responded when offered the opportunity of buying GM products in the familiar environment of their normal food shops.

Surveys were undertaken in 10 European countries, with six of them offering the option of buying either GM or GM-free products and four of them having only GM-free products available. It was proven that the answers provided by the consumers using a questionnaire did not form a reliable guide regarding their attitude when actually purchasing a product. Consumers in several countries raised mostly ethical concerns and pointed to environmental and health risks. Moreover, they were generally less aware of possible benefits than of potential hazards. However, the project concluded that a major factor in governing the purchase of GM products by Europeans was the decision of retailers to make them available to consumers, since most of them actually bought such products when offered the opportunity.

CONSUMERCHOICE based its research on seven pillars, including:

1. questions to stores' managers
2. visits to a variety of food stores to record the presence of labelled products on the shelves
3. analysis of the frequency and the content of articles on GM products in both print and broadcasted media
4. comparisons of actual purchases by members of a consumer panel with their opinions and perceived behaviour as expressed via a focussed questionnaire
5. responses of focus groups with respect to matters relating to GM foods in some of the participating countries
6. a questionnaire based survey regarding the unlabelled presence of GM ingredients in foods in north America, which was answered by around 100 Poles which were permanent or temporary residents of the United States and Canada
7. a similar survey conducted among 1 500 students and academic staff of United Kingdom universities who had recently visited north America.

As supporting background information an extensive analysis of media items relating to agricultural biotechnology and GM foods was undertaken. For each participating country, the number of media items per month was noted together with an evaluation of whether items were generally favourable, unfavourable or neutral towards GM food technology and its products. These data were correlated with major items of gene technology interest.

The project observed that the willingness of supermarkets to discuss GM products' issues varied between individual companies as well as between countries. It was also evident that some large supermarket chains did not track centrally all the GM labelled items that might be on sale. In those countries in which GM labelled foods were on sale, most alternatives were oils from GM soya sold either as cooking oil or incorporated into other products; nevertheless, some oil and other ingredients from GM maize were also on sale. Most shoppers did not actively avoid GM products, suggesting that they were not greatly concerned with the GM issue, while GM food proved not to be uppermost in people's minds when discussing food purchasing habits. Sceptical arguments were more dominant than consideration of benefits, but it seemed likely that, in the future, climate and population restraints to food availability might lead to more accepting attitudes.

It was hence pinpointed that, apart from personal preferences, the main external factor limiting the choice of European consumers with respect to their purchases of GM foods was the products' availability in the stores, given that the GM products that were on sale were satisfactorily purchased.