GMOs on the menu – UK customers speak out

May 22, 2017 by Beyond GM

If you are interested in sustainable food, eating out can be a challenge.

While many restaurants and fast food outlets claim to care about sustainability and authenticity in truth it’s the bottom line that more often than not informs sourcing and the selection of ingredients.

As new types of genetically modified foods and ingredients find their their way into the restaurant food chain in the UK the issue of ‘provenance’ becomes more complex.

For this reason, Beyond GM conducted a survey to find out more about UK customers’ attitudes to GMOs in restaurants and the results reveal a sharp message for chefs, caterers and everyone else in the food service industry.

In total 556 people responded, and 82% said they believed that GMOs deserved greater consideration as part of traceability, sustainability and provenance issues in the food chain.

The majority (97%) believed that chefs and caterers should include information about GMO ingredients – including GM fed livestock products – on menus and websites.

This kind of transparency, of course, has consequences.

When asked what they would do if a restaurant menu indicated the presence of GMO ingredients, the majority (56%) said they would find somewhere else to eat. Another large group (34%) said they would consider eating in that restaurant if guaranteed GMO-free options were available.

Similar proportions (5% and 5% respectively) said they would either find somewhere else to eat, or that they had no problem eating GMOs.

Significantly, 84% said they would consider paying more for a meal that was guaranteed GMO-free.

Eating out

Another stand-out fact was that, in spite of a common notion that those who have concerns about GMOs tend to avoid eating out, this was not the case.

Respondents to our survey frequented a wide variety of establishments including: table service restaurants (87%); pubs (56%); coffeehouses (51%); take away restaurants (50%); hotel restaurants (33%); street food outlets (32%); and home delivery services (27%). A smaller proportion of respondents (13% and 7% respectively) frequently ate at workplace or school cafeterias.

This is important information and in line with the findings of much larger surveys. For example, one 2015 survey of US diners, found that those who are concerned about sustainability are, in fact, more likely to dine out than the general population; on average 18 times a month in 6 different restaurant types (compared to others who eat out, on average, 14 times a month).

What is more, as noted in a survey by the Sustainable Restaurant Association, The Discerning Diner, concern for sustainability and provenance are not just the preserve of those with lots of money to spend on food.

When the SRA asked customers what their top concerns about restaurant food were, customer health and nutrition was the joint top concern (along with food waste) of diners (53%). Issues such as local sourcing, animal welfare and seasonality also registered as prominent concerns.

Not using genetically modified food was an expectation of significant numbers of diners in a range of restaurant types: 56% of diners where a meal costs £30 or more, 40% of diners where a meal costs between £10 and £20, and notably, 29% where a meal costs less than £10.

What it all this means is that people who have concerns about the quality and authenticity of their food have a significant stake – both personally but also financially – in wanting the restaurant food chain to be sustainable and free from GMO contamination.

A range of concerns

Respondents expressed a number of reasons why they would not want to eat GMOs. These included the ideas that GMOs:

  • Encourage corporate control of the food system (91%)
  • Support unsustainable industrial and factory farming (87%)
  • Cause environmental damage (85%)
  • Carry too many scientific unknowns (82%)
  • Raise concerns for animal welfare (74%)
  • Conflict with religious or personal beliefs (33%)
  • Other issues (27%)

Among the ‘Other’ concerns listed by respondents were issues like the risks it poses to non-GM and organic crops particularly from cross pollination, loss of knowledge of traditional ways of growing food/managing pests, loss of crop diversity and loss of consumer choice.

Concern over the higher use of herbicides and insecticides on GMOs crops also came through as a theme not just for the environmental damage they cause but also for health risks.

Some questioned the social need for GMOs, given that they are not designed to be more nutritious. Several other respondents also felt that the totality of problems associated with GMOs made them a crime against nature or ‘ecocide’ which they felt should be punishable by law.

It was interesting to us that while opponents of agricultural GMOs are often portrayed as having an irrational or moral objection to GMOs – as opposed to an evidence-based one – very few indicated that they objected to GMOs because they conflicted with their one religious or personal beliefs.

Although only about a third of respondents (34%) said that GMOs conflicted with personal or religious beliefs, in a multi-cultural society – and with large number of customers seeking kosher or halal food – this is an issue to watch.

Lack of trust

Our survey findings make a powerful case for food service to take a lead in cleaning up its act.

Customer trust is an extremely valuable commodity for any business. Those in the food service industry should be aware that, apart from concrete concerns about issues like health and safety, surveys on GMOs consistently show that the general public does not trust genetically modified food and that this food technology provokes in them a sense of genuine unease.

Indeed, in our survey 83% of respondent said they did not believe GMOs were safe to eat; 12% said they did not know and only 5% said they thought GMOs were safe to eat.

This is reflective of an unease around GMOs which has always been there but which is growing steadily as newer and more complex biotechnology looks for a marketplace in the foods we eat every day.

Our findings, again, are in line with those of other surveys, for instance the 2010 Eurobarometer opinion poll.

This most recent large scale independent survey of public attitudes towards genetic engineering technology is now several years old, but its findings remain valid and relevant.

It found that nearly 60% of Europeans believe that GM food is not safe for their health and that of their family or for future generations. An even larger majority (70%) said that genetically modifying foods is “fundamentally unnatural”, and 61% said that GMOs made them “feel uneasy”.

Overall it found that as many as 95% of European respondents rated GMO foods as potentially unsafe and lacking real benefits.

The Eurobarometer survey also revealed equally strong opposition to animal cloning for food, with only 18% of people in favour.

The survey highlighted that there was widespread awareness about GM food (84%).

A key finding related to this was that, contrary to what proponents of GM crops claim, Europeans understand the difference between biotechnology and genetic engineering of food, and strongly reject only the latter.

More recently, in 2013, these sentiments were echoed in the UK, when the Food Standards Agency published the second wave of its Food and You survey.

Asked about awareness of new food technologies used in food production, respondents reported being most aware of genetic modification (80%); 64% of people were aware of animal cloning, 34% of irradiation and 20% of nanotechnology.

A majority of people felt uneasy about the use of these technologies in food: 66% being uneasy about animal cloning, 52% about genetic modification, and 51% about irradiation. 34% of people expressed concern about nanotechnology even though it is relatively new and not widely known.

Almost since the advent of genetic engineering the food industry, the research establishment and parts of the media have been saying that the public is becoming more accepting of the technology.  However, with no credible independent evidence to support this view it remains little more than wishful thinking.

The most recent independent survey was a 2014 YouGov poll which investigated whether people’s attitudes to GMOs were becoming more favourable. Only 6% of the public reported their views towards GM foods becoming “more positive” over the last 12 months, virtually identical to the 5% who said their views had become more negative.

As for those whose views hadn’t changed at all, they remained decisively negative: 41% negative to 17% positive. A large proportion (31%) also responded “don’t know” when asked how their views on GM have evolved.

In addition 40% believed that the government should not be promoting the adoption of GM, while just 22% believed that they should.

Messages to chefs

Respondents to our survey were asked what their personal message about GMOs to chefs, caterers, hoteliers and others in the food service industry was.

Some of these comments include pleas for those in food service to lead:

  • Educate yourselves…it’s important to us!
  • “I’m shocked that more chefs etc. don’t take the time to understand the issues & stand up for a really sustainable food system.”
  • “Think about how our choices now affect the future.”
  • “You are at the forefront and should demand the best and purest ingredients.”
  • “Try and get a truly balanced view on GMOs. Err on the side of caution. Most people seem to have a natural distrust of them. They are your customers.”
  • “You can be leaders and heroes of a culture, of good husbandry and farming, and real love of good food. Or we can all end up not knowing what we are eating, because GM will get everywhere.”

We also saw a desire for clear labelling:

  • “Clearly state whether or not you use GM ingredients. I would much prefer to eat animals that have been treated well and organic produce, so am much more likely to patronise restaurants that care about these things too.”
  • “Ensure you provide clear choices to your customers so they can make informed choices about what they eat.”
  • “Customers have a right to know…and will no doubt prove that, given a choice, they would prefer to avoid GMOs.”
  • “I am sick of finding empty GM oil cans outside restaurants & cafes that are not labelling this on their menus – as required by law!”
  • “Consider emulating San Carlo in Birmingham whose window message is that their suppliers assure them that their ingredients are GM free.”
  • “Let us know what we are eating!”

And of course a desire to simplify everyone’s lives by just keeping GMOs out of the food chain:

  • “Leave it out!”
  • “Get ahead of the game in supporting non-GMO food before it’s you or the company you work for losing out in the long-term as awareness increases.”
  • “Change the way you purchase your food.”
  • “Keep that gunk out of my food!!”
  • “Don’t! Not enough is known about the effects and food shouldn’t be mucked about with. Stick to fresh, natural and local produce.”
  • “Keep GMOs out of the food chain! I don’t want to encourage the cultivation of GM crops by eating dairy and meat products fed GMOs.”
  • “I do not want GMOs on my plate. I will gladly pay more for ‘clean’ food.”
  • “If you want my business, offer me non-GMO meals.”
  • “I will be seeking out places to eat where non GM food is guaranteed. I hope you will be among those who supply it.”

Where are we now?

Although we like to think of the UK as GMO free, this is not really the case. There is a slow creep of GMO products in to our shops and of GMO ingredients into our food and drink – and the landscape is rapidly changing.

Britain does not grow GM crops but it has an open door policy to imports of GM feed and foods and to ingredients that can be used without the need for labelling.

Foods for human consumption and animal feed can contain up to 0.9% GM ingredients (as long as the GM content is accidental or technically unavoidable) and not require labelling. Similarly, foods made with GM processing agents may not be labelled as such. These can include soy-based ingredients such as lecithin, soy protein, soy sauce and soy flour, corn-based ingredients including modified food starch, corn syrup, maltodextrin, and corn flour, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and trehalose, and increasingly cane sugar.

You will find these things in products like ready-made salad dressings, marinades and sauces, breads and crackers, vegetarian meat substitutes and deserts.

The most common GMO products in UK restaurants, however, are GMO oils derived from maize, soya, rapeseed and sometimes cottonseed.

Restaurants and other establishments are legally obliged to indicate on the menu – including online menus – if they are using such oils. However, Trading Standards reports show that most don’t.

Nearly all conventionally reared meat in the UK is reared on GM feed. While the feed itself must, according to the law, be labelled, the eventually food products meat, milk and eggs – do not require labelling at point of sale. We know from our contact with the public that this is seen as unacceptable and a restriction of consumer choice.

Wines produced using genetically modified yeasts do not need to be labelled and beers and spirits made using GMO ingredients also do not need to state this on the label as it is considered proprietary.

There is some evidence that beers imported from the US and Mexico do contain GMO ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup (mainly in the US), caramel colouring, and some genetically modified organisms (GMO) like dextrose and corn syrup.

US Distillers Brown Forman – whose brands include Jack Daniels, Canadian Whiskey, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester – announced in 2014 that, due to supply chain issues in the US it spirits would now be made using GM ingredients.

The same is now starting to happen in the UK. Factory style spirit distillers are creating multiple brands – including vodkas, gins, jenevers, liquors, pastis and cream liquors – using cheap imported GMO derived neutral grains and potable alcohols. None of it is labelled.

Importantly, new biotechnology methods and biotech ingredients, such as cocoa, vanilla, stevia, saffron and coconut produced using synthetic biology and ‘fake foods’ such as chicken-less chicken, milk-less milk and egg-less eggs, some of which require GM starter cultures, are being aimed squarely at the food service industry and cynically framed as sustainable and ethical alternatives to conventional foods.

Food service must rise to the challenge of understanding these issues and challenging assumptions around them.

Context and conclusions

The immediate purpose of the survey was to help inform discussion at a Supply Chain Roundtable hosted by TV Chef Cyrus Todiwala and Hospitality and Catering News. However, results will also be used as part of Beyond GM’s Stir the Pot initiative to engage with professionals in food service about the encroachment of GMOs into the food chain.

The survey was conducted online over 6 weeks March and April 2017 and was disseminated through a variety of channels including our own newsletter and social media and via other supportive organisations such as Sustain, The Sustainable Restaurant Association, Sustainable Food Cities and Slow Food. It was also flagged up in an article in Hospitality and Catering News as well as in the Ecologist and Natural Products News.

Our survey does not claim to be comprehensive and does have some limitations. The survey numbers are relatively small and the male female split showed a bias towards women. The demographics of the UK as a whole are 49% men and 51% women. In our survey 37% were men and 63% women.

The distribution of age ranges leans towards a greater number of aged 45+ individuals that would be found in the UK as a whole 72% compared to 34%.

In addition, the population surveyed was taken largely from a population of people who are more aware and potentially better informed about GMOs than the average individual.

However, studies such as the previously mentioned Eurobarometer survey, show that concern about the safety of eating GMOs generally rises in those who are better informed about genetic modification

In spite of these considerations, we are confident that our results are broadly in line with the findings of other public surveys.

For instance, in 2012 BBC Countryfile Magazine launched an open poll which posed the question: Should GM crop trials be allowed to go ahead?. The online surrey returned 7824 responses, 79% (6144) of whom said no and 21% (1680) sad yes.

An open poll in the Guardian newspaper online reported in 2013 that 72% of readers said they do not believe GM food is either safe or beneficial. Six months later the Guardian ran another online open poll – Should restrictions on GM crops be relaxed? In this poll 71% said no.

Moving forward

Beyond GM is very much a people’s campaign. Everything we do gives space and voice to the majority in the UK who have real concerns about GMOs and the direction of travel they represent in food and farming. Our work helps amplify those concerns and represent them to those in power.

By and large the consumer, or more correctly citizen, continues to be missing in the public debate. It is shunned and even derided by media outlets such as the BBC (which has a firm bias towards the promotion of GMOs) our major newspapers, the National Farmers Union, the British Government and even supermarkets.

The food service industry claims to take sustainability seriously as part of a commitment to provenance. It’s clear from our survey, and others, that customers believe that GMOs are absolutely a part of this picture and that the strength of feeling is such that the industry will not get away with ignoring the issue or greenwashing it.

We are ready, able and willing to help the food service industry understand the issues, keep GMOs out of the restaurant food chain and take them out where they already exist.