‘Foods Containing DNA’

There’s been a lot of hullaballoo about a GMO study recently. Specifically, this bit:

A recent survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics finds that over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labeling of GMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.”

And it seems like everyone on my Facebook feed has paused to giggle about those stupid people who are so invested in how important labeling GMOs is, while being scientifically illiterate. So, in the interest of being focused on the less-fun details of the study, I leave room for that here.

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I pulled the details of the survey here.

Every month (!!) the FooDS survey opens and closes, asking people about what makes them pick certain foods (between December and January, the value of taste and price decreased). There are also ad hoc questions, which is where we get snarky.

The question was “Do you support or oppose the following government policies?” 

There’s one framing, where you see that 82% of the 1,000 participants said yes, they did support labeling when GMOs were present. And 80% of respondents then went on to the next question and said that yes, they supported labeling products with DNA present.

And sure, it’s fun to giggle at, and wow, does it make the labeling lobby look silly. But in that graphic that everyone’s passing around, let’s look at the other components of the question.

Do you support or oppose the following government policies?

A tax on sugared sodas.
A ban on the sale of marijuana
A ban on the sale of food products made with trans fat
A ban on the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk.
Calorie limits for school lunches
Mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus
Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.
Mandatory labels on foods produced with genetic engineering
A requirement that school lunches must contain two servings of fruits and vegetables
Mandatory country of origin labels for meat.

The full graph looks like this, actually:

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You’ll notice that every other government policy is actually a debated governmental policy.*

Tricking study participants is a time-honored tradition of psych methodology, but you have to trick them effectively, and I’m not convinced this is anything but a gotcha question. If you ask people to support or oppose a governmental policy and then bury one non-policy question in a bunch of actual policies they might have heard of, you are not actually doing excellent science. You are creating a popular Facebook graphic.

In fact, if you look at the chart, the number of people who support what could be called “general labeling of food” tracks closely, hovering between 69% and 86%. It seems more plausible that people, reading quickly through an online questionaire either got as far as “government policy which supports labeling—” and marked their support. They’re the sort of people who support availability of information to the people! (In fact, we do know that identity signaling impacts answering on survey questions, and that it takes strong incentives to get people to check answers that they know are correct but that support the ‘other side.’)

And say that, as the Facebook graphics seem to imply, that the high support for labeling food with DNA comes from scientific illiteracy, well, I’m still not convinced. (We are keeping in mind that if, as the study claims, the sample was representative in age of the population, ~12% of the respondents went to high school before DNA was taught, yes?) In a study where you, the participant, are assuming you’re supporting or opposing a governmental policy, and you see an acronym you don’t recall, do you support labeling foods that contain it, or no? Keeping in mind of course, that it’s likely you supported labeling in the questions that came before, I’d expect you to indicate your support.

* Citation: tax on sugared soda, ban on raw milk, ban on marijuana, ban on trans fats, max calories in school lunches, school lunches and quantity of fruits and vegetables (link is summary of current requirements, which is currently up for debate, as discussed in previous link), country of origin labels for meat, labeling of GMOs, calories on restaurant menus.



3 thoughts on “‘Foods Containing DNA’

  1. The question is further weird in my mind because we generally support mandatory labeling on food, period. The question doesn’t say “do you support mandatory DNA labeling for foods containing DNA.” My first mental process/reaction when reading it as stated is “hm, what kind of labeling? I guess I would like to know the nutritional information and the species.”

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