Might consumers interpret GMO labels as a warning label?

Opponents of mandatory labeling of GMO foods often argue that requiring mandatory labels could mislead consumers - making them think there is a safety risk when the best science suggests the opposite.  This is no minor issue, as citizens in Oregon and Colorado will vote on mandatory labeling initiatives this November (previous voter initiatives in California and Washington narrowly failed; legislation in Vermont has already passed).  

Here, for example, is an unlikely critic of mandatory GMO labeling, Cass Sunstein (Obama's former "regulatory czar") writing for

... GM labels may well mislead and alarm consumers, especially (though not only) if the government requires them. Any such requirement would inevitably lead many consumers to suspect that public officials, including scientists, believe that something is wrong with GM foods — and perhaps that they pose a health risk.

I have made related arguments in the past, and have even published some prior academic work giving some empirical evidence backing the concern.  However, the evidence is far from conclusive.

Marco Constanigro at Colorado State University and I decided to investigate the issue more directly in a couple studies we conducted last year, which are now published in the journal Food Policy.  

Our research strategy sought to determine whether consumers who were exposed to foods that had GMO labels subsequently indicated higher levels of concern than people who hadn't been shown such labels.  

In the first study, we used apples as the context.  Respondents were randomly assigned to one of three groups.  One group (the control) made choices between apples that did not mention GMOs at all - that had a decoy attribute: ripening with ethylene.   Another group made choices with mandatory ("contains") GMO labels, and another group with voluntary ("does not contain") labels.  The following shows examples of choices we presented to people in the control and treatment groups.

After making several choices between apples like this with different labels, then we asked each set of consumers a bunch of questions about how safe they thought it was to eat GMOs, how concerned the were about GMOs relative to other issues, etc.

Here's the first key result: There was no consistent statistically significant difference in the average level of concern for GMOS expressed by people shown different labels.  That is, the mere presence of the GMO label did not lead to a greater level of concern about GMOs.

However, we can also study the actual apple choices that people made, and use those choices to infer aversion to GMOs.  And here, another set of interesting results emerges:  Consumers' willingness-to-pay to avoid GMOs is more than twice as high in the presence of mandatory "contains" GMO labels as compared to voluntary "does not contain" GMO labels.  Also, willingness-to-pay to avoid ethylene ripening (a common, and heretofore uncontroversial, industry practice) is as high as that to avoid GMOs.

In the second study, respondents were divided into one of two groups.  The first control group was shown an unaltered box of cheerios and was simply asked to click on the areas of the box they found most and then least appealing.  A second treatment group did the same but for a box of cheerios that had, in small print on the bottom left-hand-side of the package the label "partially produced with genetic engineering."   After looking at these packages, we then asked each set of respondents a series of questions about how safe they thought it was to eat GMOs, how concerned the were about GMOs relative to other issues, etc.  The idea is that if GMO labels signal safety then those people who say the mandatory label should subsequently indicate a higher level of concern than those who did not see such a label.

Here are "heat maps" associated with the initial the results where we simply asked people to click on the areas they found most/least desirable.  The top pictures show the clicks for most desirable and the bottom pictures the clicks for the least desirable (clearly people in the GMO treatment noticed the GMO label and found it unappealing):

Here's the key result: There was no statistically significant difference in the level of concern for GMOS expressed among people shown the box with the GMO label vs. the group shown the box without the GMO label.  

Thus, neither study supported our hypothesis that the mere presence of GMO labels would lead people to believe GMOs are more or less safe.  

Here's how we concluded the paper:

We interpret the evidence as suggesting (at least in the context of our studies) that any signaling effects, should they exist, are likely small and below the ability to consistently detect given our sample sizes of approximately 200 participants per treatment. Nevertheless, we do not believe the results completely rule out the possibility of a signaling effect.

A true labeling mandate imposed by law may well send a different signal about the nature of scientific and public concern than labels shown by researchers on a survey. It is likely impossible for a researcher to impersonate governmental authorities (and the media and culture surrounding a “real world” label implementation) required to fully reproduce the potential signaling effect of a labeling requirement. Our approach – exposing consumers to GM labels via a choice experiment or modified packaging – only simulates exposure to GM labels in a market-like setting, and it must be acknowledged that “real world” effects are possibly more pronounced.

There are at least two other reasons to believe that some forms of signaling are alive and well. First, study 1 reveals that mandatory “contains” labels generated significantly higher implied willingness-to-pay to avoid GE food than voluntary “does not contain” labels. The differences in responses to mandatory vs. voluntary labels may result from the asymmetric negativity effect, which may in turn result from differences in what these two labels signal about the relative desirability of the unlabeled product. The differences in the “contains” vs. “does not contain” may also send different signals and change beliefs about the likelihood that the unlabeled product is GE or non-GE. Second, in study 1 we found aversion to our “decoy” attribute – ethylene ripening – in the control that is on par with aversion to GE food. During fruit storage, atmospheric ethylene is often controlled to slow or accelerate the ripening process (see Sinha et al., 2012), but we are not aware of any significant controversy over its use. Ethylene is a natural plant hormone, and many consumers use the same mechanism when they put a banana in a fruit bowl to induce ripening. Should produce ripened with ethylene also be required to be labeled? Did the mere presence of the attribute on our survey signal consumers that it is an attribute that should be avoided?