DNA labels

Last week's release of the Food Demand Survey (FooDS) has probably generated as much attention as anything I've put out on this blog.  From my perspective, its hard to know why - I've had longer, more insightful posts, and I've shown similar results in the past (e.g., that people desire avoiding ethylene as much as GMOs).  Part of that just goes to show what a few serendipitous retweets will do for web traffic.  

The issue garnering the attention is the question I added to this month's FooDS asking people (N=1,015; nationwide; demographically weighted to match US population) whether they supported or opposed 10 different food policies.  I was mainly interested in how people responded to the question on mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus, because that issue has been in the news much of late given the release of the FDA's final rule (and because of the prior research I've worked on with Brenna Ellison on the topic).  But, I often think asking about a single issue in isolation, without much context, isn't particularly insightful.  What's often more interesting are the relative comparisons against other policy issues (or changes over time, which is the main focus of many of the FooDS questions).  Thus, the questions on GMOs, and the question that sparked the most interest: mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.

A few comments.  I do not interpret answers to these sorts of questions as necessarily reflecting some sort of deeply held beliefs, but rather they often represent quick, gut reactions.  As the ballot initiatives in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have shown, mandatory GMO labels initially poll at very high levels (at levels similar to what we found in the recent survey), but in all four of those states, labeling failed to garner 50% of the vote.  Clearly, many people's views about mandatory GMO labeling are not fixed constructs, but are (at least at this point) somewhat malleable and are open to education and persuasion.  As such, I do not believe polls of this sort provide "the" answer on whether a policy should pass/fail, but rather provide initial insights for where the conversation will begin.  

There also seemed to be some insinuation that I "tricked" respondents or that the question was leading.  I have a hard time seeing it (were 61% of respondents also led to say that they opposed sugar soda taxes?).  The order of the items was randomized across respondents.  As some commentators have pointed out, the question on DNA labels probably could have been better worded.  It's worded as saying "mandatory labels on foods containing DNA."  So, let's say that you know a lot of foodstuff contains DNA and you want labels on, say, nutritional content, then it could be that you'd say "support" not because you find DNA worrisome but because you want nutritional labels.  I doubt that's how most people interpreted the question, but it's a possibility.  There is ample evidence that the public doesn't understand much about genetics.  For example, back in 1999 in a paper in Science, Gaskell et al. asked true/false questions of the sort, "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do."  This question has been repeated in many subsequent surveys, and it is often found that many people (incorrectly) say "true".  

I'd be careful about saying this means that people are not smart enough to make their own food decisions (I've written extensively on the topic of paternalism).  I think it mainly implies people don't much need to think about such issues (i.e., they don't have an incentive to think carefully about the issue).  Nonetheless, as I've noted about Kaheman's work, it should make us wary of the availability entrepreneur.  

Finally, I'll noted that I've seen several thoughtful comments on my latest survey.  See, for example, Ilya Somin at the Washington Post or Robbie Gonzalez at i09.