NEW ORLEANS -- Certain issues resonate better in consumer education programs related to using technology in the food industry, and those approaches are more effective in improving the chances for concepts like biotechnology and irradiation to succeed in the marketplace, according to a pair of industry experts who spoke at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2002.
Christine Bruhn, Ph.D., director, Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, said consumer opinion of new technologies improves when the focus is placed on the touchstone issues of taste, safety, nutrition and the environment.
"When these issues are addressed, consumer opinion improves all the time," Bruhn said.
She said people want to know how a process affects them, so presenting the information about the technology should include data from reliable, widely accepted information sources. Sylvia Rowe, president of the International Food Information Council, Washington, said those making or selling technology-enhanced foods should use educational materials from government agencies, since they consistently are ranked tops in polls rating information sources.
"Trust in science and trust in government come up very high in [U.S.] consumer polls," she said. "It's a luxury we have here [in the United States] that they don't have in Europe because of their experience with dioxin and mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth disease."
Consumers can be influenced to consider the more beneficial aspects of biotechnology and irradiation if they're exposed to those information sources to highlight particular areas that are important to them.
"The more educated and aware they are, the more open American consumers are to biotechnology, and to all issues involving food and agriculture," Rowe added.
Which terms are used to describe the processes, and how they are presented to the public, matter. Rowe said consumers understand, and studies indicate they like, the term biotechnology, which is a partial contraction of the words biology and technology.
"Their least favorite term is GMO, or genetically modified organism, because it makes them think of a little bug that's crawling around on their food," she noted.
While there are risks with any new technology, including those used in agriculture, the pair recited a list of pro-technology reports and studies done over the past few years showing that both irradiation and biotechnology have the capacity to improve not only the product itself, but the conditions under which they are grown. For example, Bruhn cited a 2002 examination of reductions in pesticide use among certain crops that are bioengineered. BT cotton saw a 6.6-million kilogram drop in pesticide use, while HT maize used 1.5 million fewer kilograms. The total reduction in pesticides for all five crops studied was 22.3 million kilograms.
Every two years, Rowe's organization commissions a qualitative and quantitative analysis of electronic and print media, both national and local, to determine what comprises the public debate in the area of food-related issues. The most recent, Food for Thought IV, was published in 2001, and found that 72% of those polled said they had heard or read something about biotechnology today.
"That's still a very low number considering how much information there has been in the news over a period of time," Rowe said. "But it's probably somewhat reflective of the fact that this is just not that [critical] an issue for the U.S. consumer, unlike consumers in other parts of the world, particularly Europe."
When asked about those issues close to them, "U.S. consumers say first and foremost they'd like to see improved quality, taste and freshness -- those 'What's in it for me'-type of attitudes; followed by a reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides," said Rowe.
Bruhn noted that consumers might be especially interested to know that enhanced aroma, sweetness and characteristics that are desirable for produce are achievable through the techniques of genetic modification.
"Are there times when you have a product that's so magnificent that you have trouble keeping it on the shelf? Don't you want those times all the time?" she asked retailers.
"Would you like to have fresh-cut items that taste freshly prepared, and stay on your shelf long enough for you to sell it -- and stay in the consumer's refrigerator long enough so that they can use it? There is work taking place right now on expanded shelf life for fresh-cut products that would maintain quality."
Bioengineering and irradiation also have a play in the retailer's relentless search for new and exotic produce items. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's approval of irradiation on Hawaiian papaya opened a whole new world of possibilities for imported products that might not otherwise be able to withstand lengthy shipping and quarantine periods before reaching store shelves, she said.
"Many tropical fruits might carry fruit flies and have to undergo a special quarantine before they're allowed to come to at least certain markets in the United States," Bruhn said. "Irradiation works on a wide variety of fruits, and there are currently fruits coming out of Hawaii instead of the hot-air room that don't have flies, moldy spots and hard, unripened spots.
Biotechnology could also remove concerns about allergens in certain items like kiwi and rice, and irradiation would have allowed U.S. consumers to eat clean raspberries imported from Guatemala in 1999, rather than those tainted with cyclospora.
"Irradiation at a low dose would have destroyed the cyclospora so that raspberries would have been saved from the import ban," she said.
Referring to IFIC's studies, Rowe noted that consumers -- asked which foods they are eating less of -- have most often responded with meats and dairy products.