More consumers say they find food labels helpful, but confidence in the trustworthiness of labels has declined, and falls even more when consumers are provided additional information about such claims, according to a new poll conducted in by the Iowa Food & Family Project.
Related: Five Misleading Food Labels
The poll included responses from 353 health-conscious Iowans who make the majority of their household's food purchases. With a 4.3% margin of error, it asked participants' take on food labels like "natural," "local," "organic," "hormone-free," "antibiotic-free" and "GMO-free."
When asked which consideration is most important when purchasing food, "quality" ranked first at 35% followed by safety (24%), price (21%) and "how it's grown" (10%).
Respondents also gave food labels high marks, with 77% saying they are helpful in making food purchases, an increase of 31% from a year ago.
Regarding specific food labels, "local" performed best with 62% favorability followed by "hormone free" at 48% and "antibiotic free" at 43%. Twenty-seven percent of respondents had a favorable impression of food labeled "natural," down 7 points from a year ago.
"Organic" was preferred by just 25% of respondents, down 11 points from 2013. Just 22% found "GMO-free" as superior to food not labeled "GMO-free."
What to labels mean?
Carol Bodensteiner, former president of CMF&Z Public Relations, was not surprised by the drop in support of organic and natural labels, speculating a decline in publicity surrounding the labels.
For a number of years, CMF&Z conducted annual surveys that gauged consumer attitudes toward a range of food and agriculture issues. Through her experience, Bodensteiner advises consumers to look beyond media hype and learn more about what food labels mean.
"We're constantly being fed information through the media and other sources," Bodensteiner said. "Too often we as consumers have accepted the hype without knowing the background."
Related: Would GM Label Ensure Food Safety?
In the survey, participants were also asked follow-up questions regarding the validity of popular food label claims. Preference for food labeled "hormone-free" declined by half (from 48% to 24%) when respondents were reminded that that all plants and animals have naturally present hormones.
Although the U.S. Food & Drug Administration prohibits the use of added hormones in poultry, Katie Olthoff, an Iowa turkey farmer, still receives questions on what hormones are, why hormones are used and how they are being marketed.
"These 'hormone-free' labels are very misleading," Olthoff said. "These labels should really say 'raised without added growth hormones,' which is true of all poultry in the United States."
Support for other food labels also declined significantly when respondents were provided additional facts about how food is grown and marketed.
For example, preference for food labeled "antibiotic-free" fell 16 points when poll participants learned of federal guidelines surrounding antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production.
The FDA approves of farmers' use of antibiotics for disease treatment, control and prevention to uphold standards of health, comfort and safety for the animals. FDA also requires a mandatory withdrawal period before going to market.
Respondents also were re-evaluated about their confidence in food labels after they were provided with additional facts. The background information led to a 6% shift in those finding food labels helpful to those who find labels confusing.
Are you interested in the GMO discussion? Penton Farm Progress Special Projects Editor Holly Spangler has researched GMO foods, GMO labeling and the genetically modified food debate in an exclusive series. Follow the links below for more.
Would GM Label Ensure Food Safety?
GM Labeling: Dollars Make a Difference
GMOs: The Fight to Label
Urban Moms on GMOs
Source: Iowa Food and Family