June 19, 2001 -- With safety concerns widespread, Americans almost unanimously favor mandatory labels on genetically modified foods. And most say they'd use those labels to avoid the food.
Barely more than a third of the public believes that genetically modified foods are safe to eat. Instead 52 percent believe such foods are unsafe, and an additional 13 percent are unsure about them. That's broad doubt on the very basic issue of food safety.
Nearly everyone, moreover — 93 percent — says the federal government should require labels on food saying whether it's been genetically modified, or "bio-engineered" (this poll used both phrases). Such near-unanimity in public opinion is rare.
Fifty-seven percent also say they'd be less likely to buy foods labeled as genetically modified. That puts the food industry in a quandary: By meeting consumer demand for labeling, it would be steering business away from its genetically modified products.
The image problem of genetically modified food is underscored by contrast to organic foods. While only five percent of Americans say they'd be more likely to buy a food labeled as genetically modified, 52 percent say they'd be more likely to buy food that's labeled as having been raised organically.
Genetically modified foods are particularly unpopular among women, another problem for food producers since so many women do the family shopping.
Sixty-two percent of women think genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat, a view that's shared by far fewer men, 40 percent. Indeed a plurality of men think these foods are safe, while women disagree by better than 2-1.
Similarly, while 49 percent of men say they'd be less likely to buy food labeled as genetically modified, that jumps to 65 percent of women. (Similar numbers of women and men say they're more likely to buy organic foods.)
There's also a distinction by age; people under 45 are about 10 points more likely than their elders to think genetically modified foods are safe to eat. But a bare majority of young adults still calls genetically modified foods unsafe.
There's also a political difference. Republicans divide evenly on whether genetically modified foods are safe or unsafe. Independents rate them unsafe by a 20-point margin; Democrats, by a 26-point margin.
What's at Issue
This poll, conducted for ABCNEWS.com by telephone among a random sample of adults across the country, described genetic engineering as a process by which "scientists can change the genes in some food crops and farm animals to make them grow faster or bigger and be more resistant to bugs, weeds and disease." Organic foods were described as raised "without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers or feed additives."
Genetic modification of foods has been in development since the 1980s, inciting heated argument pro and con. A variety of genetically modified crops has been approved by the FDA for general use, and it's reviewing an application to market genetically modified fish.
The FDA has said labeling isn't necessary because there's no evidence genetic engineering changes a food's quality, safety, "or any other attribute." In a report late last year, the American Medical Association also said there was "no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods, as a class."
Starlink, a genetically modified corn that is approved for use in animal feed but not for human consumption, made its way into human foods last year. The government reported last week that Starlink did not cause allergic reactions in people who reported health problems after eating it.
This ABCNEWS.com survey was conducted by telephone June 13-17, among a random national sample of 1,024 adults. The results have a three-point margin of error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.
Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.