MIT Study: GMO Labels Send a Message That Products Are Unsafe

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Food manufacturers and the bioscience industry say government mandates requiring labels on products with genetically modified ingedients are a scare tactic to convince consumers that the food is unsafe.

A new study by a professor of marketing at MIT Sloan School of Management suggests they may be right.

Juanjuan Zhang found that many consumers view the disclosure requirement as a sign that a product is unsafe. Consumers tend to assume that the government knows more than they do about the safety of the food supply, she said. And if the government requires labels on food, consumers will suspect something is wrong with it, she said.

Connecticut lawmakers recently passed the first-in-the-nation rule requiring foods with genetically modified organisms carry labels, although a series of steps must be taken before the law takes effect: four states — including those bordering Connecticut — must pass a similar bill. In addition, any combination of northeastern states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania or New Jersey), with an aggregate population of at least 20 million people, must approve labeling legislation.

Supporters of labeling say consumers have a right to know what\’s in their foods, but the MIT study found the presence of such labels sends a strong message.

Read more about the MIT study after the jump.

The study relied on two different research methods–a consumer survey and mathematical modeling based on game theory. Both resulted in the same conclusion: consumers concluded the products were unsafe.

According to MIT, Zhang and her research assistants surveyed 200 people outside grocery stores, next to an organic food truck, or in a university dining hall. The team  asked the consumers if they would participate in a survey of attitudes toward the safety of genetically modified food.  But before consumers stated their opinions, the researchers told one group that the government was considering requiring labeling, while a second group was told simply that there is no requirement for labels now.

 The first group tended to have much greater concerns than the second group about the safety of genetically modified food.

Zhang also constructed a mathematical model that predicts the behavior of individuals in response to actions by the government. The result was similar.

While the research focused specifically on GMO food labels, the research can be applied to other situations, Zhang wrote. \”For example, from the requirement for physicians to disclosure their affiliation with pharmaceutical companies, patients may infer that corrupted recommendations must be prevalent enough to be worth addressing. From the tightening of security scrutiny at airports, travelers may infer that security threats have caused sufficient concern. From the increase of taxation on a natural resource, manufacturers may infer a future decline in supply,\” the paper states.

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