The Perceived Risks and Benefits of Genetically Modified Food Products: Experts Versus Consumers

ABSTRACT - Two qualitative studies investigate perceived risks and benefits of genetically modified food products in expert and consumer samples. In Study 1, expert focus groups were conducted in Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the UK. Results indicate that the biotechnology community will concentrate future communication activities on three key benefits: functional food innovations, price advantages, and environmentally sound production. In Study 2, 400 laddering interviews with consumers from Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the UK were conducted. Both for yoghurt and beer products, the attribute 'genetically modified’ was more strongly associated with risks than benefits. The same attributes that experts considered key benefits were considered as risks by the consumers, either resulting in ambivalence or in rejection of genetically modified food products.



Citation:

Joachim Scholderer, Ingo Balderjahn, Lone Bredahl, and Klaus G. Grunert (1999) ,"The Perceived Risks and Benefits of Genetically Modified Food Products: Experts Versus Consumers", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 123-129.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 123-129

THE PERCEIVED RISKS AND BENEFITS OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD PRODUCTS: EXPERTS VERSUS CONSUMERS

Joachim Scholderer, University of Potsdam, Germany

Ingo Balderjahn, University of Potsdam, Germany

Lone Bredahl, The MAPP Centre, Denmark

Klaus G. Grunert, The MAPP Centre, Denmark

[Research was funded by the European Commission through contract number FAIR-PL96-1667, "Consumer Attitudes and Decision-making with Regard to Genetically Engineered Food Products" (CADE-GENTECH). The authors wish to thank Francesco Guadalupi at ISIDA in Palermo, and Lynn Frewer and Pamela Pauwels at the Institute of Food Research in Reading for arranging the field work in Italy and the United Kingdom.]

ABSTRACT -

Two qualitative studies investigate perceived risks and benefits of genetically modified food products in expert and consumer samples. In Study 1, expert focus groups were conducted in Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the UK. Results indicate that the biotechnology community will concentrate future communication activities on three key benefits: functional food innovations, price advantages, and environmentally sound production. In Study 2, 400 laddering interviews with consumers from Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the UK were conducted. Both for yoghurt and beer products, the attribute 'genetically modified’ was more strongly associated with risks than benefits. The same attributes that experts considered key benefits were considered as risks by the consumers, either resulting in ambivalence or in rejection of genetically modified food products.

INTRODUCTION

Modernbiotechnology is generally expected to have dramatic effects on the food chain (Smink and Hamstra 1994). However, there is a strong digression about the actual desirability of these effects. Whereas the biotechnology community predicts continuously growing market shares for innovative applications (e.g., Morrison and Giovannetti 1998), a coalition of environmental and consumer activists seems determined not to rest until genetic engineering is completely banned from food production. The present paper will address the issue in two qualitative studies. Study 1 is concerned with the expert community, investigating which risks and benefits European experts consider crucial for future trends in the marketing of genetically modified food products. Study 2 will take the opposite approach, exploring which risks and benefits European consumers actually associate with the product attribute 'genetically modified’.

A considerable body of survey research has investigated the role of perceived risks and benefits in the formation of consumer attitudes towards genetic engineering (for a recent review see Bredahl, Grunert, and Frewer 1998). Frewer and Shepherd (1995; also see Sparks, Shepherd, and Frewer 1994) found that perceived risks and benefits were the best predictors for summative attitudes among British consumers. Hamstra (1995) reports comparable results for Dutch consumers, with perceived benefits being slightly better predictors than perceived risks. Hampel and Pfenning (1998) conclude from a German survey that attitude formation is characterized by an explicit trade-off that has not ended up in deliberate decision-making but in prolongued ambivalence. However, the type of biotechnology application seems to be an important moderator. In a recent Eurobarometer survey (European Commission 1997), approximately 16,000 European consumers were asked to evaluate six types of biotechnology applications with respect to their perceived risk, benefit, and moral acceptability. Diagnostics for the detection of genetic deficiencies in humans were evaluated most positively, followed by modification of bacteria to produce medicines and vaccines, introduction of pest resistance into crop plants, development of laboratory animals for biomedical research, genetic engineering in functional foods, and, finally, transplantation technology. Rank orders were consistent across the three dimensions, suggesting that perceived risks and benefits cannot necessarily be generalized across different application types and, consequently, across different product classes.

The public outrage of the last decade has left its stamp on modern biotechnology. Consumer surveys all across Europe indicate that genetic engineering is widely perceived as a potentially hazardous technology. In contrast to this, science, industry, and governments are generally supportive of biotechnology and see no justified reasons for a public moratorium. Yet, a technology that is only deemed hazardous will cause the same communication problems as a technology that is actually hazardous. The studies reported in this paper will thus address two research questions: (a) which risks and benefits of genetically modified food products are regarded crucial by the experts, and (b) which risks and benefits are regarded crucial by the consumers? Since survey research can neither assess conceptual differences between consumers and experts nor the underlying cognitive structures that lead consumers to summative risk evaluations, both studies will use a qualitative approach.

STUDY 1: THE VIEW OF THE EXPERTS

Study 1 will present the results of four expert focus groups we have conducted in Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom in November 1997. Leading European experts were invited to discuss the risks and benefits of genetically modified food products, as well as the communication strategies planned by their organizations.

Method

Participants. In autumn 1997, the four participating research institutions in Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom recruited outstanding experts for participation in the focus group discussions. Reflecting the different actors involved, we attempted to make sure that at least one representative of each of the following groups would take part: scientific research, authorities responsible for the approval of genetically modified organisms, suppliers of genetically modified organisms, food processing industry, umbrella organizations of the food industry, agricultural organizations, retailers, the media, professional communication agencies, consumer organizations, and environmental organizations. The final composition of the four focus groups is given in Table 1. Altogether, N=48 experts participated in the study.

Procedure. The warm-up topic elicited different views on global trends in the food sector that might evolve from the increasing use of genetic engineering techniques, including perceived change in consumer characteristics, nutritional habits, and demand. The first main part of the discussion identified outstanding risks and benefits of genetically modified food products. The moderator prompted the coverage of eleven content aspects: safety, health, environment, moral values, price, quality, social usefulness, distribution of benefits, information, freedom of choice, and decision power over foodstuffs. After risks and benefits had been extensively discussed, each participant was asked to state those three topics he or she expected the public debate to focus on in the future. The second part focused on risk communication, eliciting strategies for communicating the risks and benefits to the public.

TABLE 1

COMPOSITION OF THE EXPERT FOCUS GROUPS

Data analysis. A content analysis procedure similar to Knodel (1993) was chosen. In a first step, the videotaped discussions were transcribed, translated, and divided into meaningful segments. In a second step, the segments were classified according to a previously defined category system (derived from Smink and Hamstra 1994) including the risk-and-benefit categories safety, health, environment, moral values, price, quality, social usefulness, distribution of benefits, information, freedom of choice, and decision power over foodstuffs. In a third step, the segments were paraphrased and grouped according to equivalent content.

Results

Safety. The perhaps most astonishing result of Study 1 was the experts’ general unwillingness to resume the public debate on biosafety. The German experts agreed even collectively that the risk discussion was over. However, this was attributed to different reasons: (a) some experts thought that the safety requirements and administrative procedures were simply perceived as appropriate, (b) some thought that the critics had not been able to present scientific evidence for their risk theories, and (c) some thought that global assessments of the risks and benefits of a production technique as a whole were pointless anyway, because only the behavior of a specific organism could be judged meaningfully. Besides, proponents as well as opponents wondered what was so special about genetic engineering, maintaining that it was competitively unfair to impose the strong safety requirements only on genetic engineering techniques and not on other methods in breeding and food processing.

Health. Especially the German experts perceived a general consumer trend to healthy food, but questioned whether substantially improved functional foods would enter the European market within the next five years (see below). Some critics objected that functional foods could equally well be produced without genetic engineering, and that public health issues were generally exaggerated in the industrialized countries. However, there were cross-national differences. Whereas British participants claimed that health issues were overdone, consumer health maintenance in Italy not even seems to work properly with conventionally produced foodstuffs.

Environment. The outstanding enviromental risk that was related to transgenic organisms was the possibility of an unintended gene transfer into wild populations. Besides, only general claims of threatened sustainability were made. Sustainability was also called upon from the benefit side. Herbicide resistant plants, for example, provide environmentally sound agricultural production and food processing, especially through an up to 40% reduction in herbicide expenditures, reduced energy consumption, and reduced transportation costs due to more independence of environmental constraints.

Moral values. The notion of sustainability was not confined to the more or less scientific question about impacts on the environment. Sustainability also has strong moral dimensions. Several experts noted that genetic engineering is interfering with consumers’ basic beliefs about nature. Depending on the respective position, objections of this kind were either discounted as being logically faulty since no cultivation is natural in such a sense, as masking simple resistance to technological innovation, or as being just a matter of appraisal. Specifically, the notion of animal welfare was raised. Transgenic microorganisms provide an alternative to enzyme extraction from calves. However, European consumers were expected to be even more critical about transgenic animals than about transgenic plants, although reservations would be less strong when the application was clinical, for example in cows producing allergy-friendly milk.

Price. The experts agreed that price advantages are currently the outstanding asset of genetically modified food products. In the first place, farmers realize cost advantages, for example due to reduced pesticide expenditure. It is expected that decreases in the price of raw materials will carry over to subsequent stages of the production chain and finally enhance the price-performance ratio of consumer goods. Naturally, this brings its competitive disadvantages for those producers who have decided to keep on growing conventionally bred seeds, and this holds for competition within the European Union as well as for competition with the US industry and other major suppliers of the world market. If no stronger market barriers will be put up, the European food industry may not have a real choice regarding the growing and processing of transgenic plants.

Quality. The development of genetically engineered food products seems to follow a generation pattern. Most products that have already entered the European market are perceived as a first generation whose quality attributes pertain to improved cultivation, processing, and distribution characteristics. Significant changes in functional characteristics will require considerably more time, and many experts expected them not before 2010. Changes in functional characteristics that are currently under development include allergy-friendly breastmilk substitutes, soybeans with modified oil composition, potatoes with modified starch composition, and products containing less saturated fatty acids, resulting in improved nutritional value and thus providing healthiness as a quality attribute. However, it was stressed that the effects of improved quality on product sales are most likely subject to price constraints. That is, demand for genetically engineered food products will only increase if their quality is superior while their price remains constant or is lower than that of conventional products.

Social usefulness. Product and market characteristics evaluated as socially useful centered on three major issues: health, freedom of choice, and development. Regarding the health issue, European consumers seem to perceive healthy food as a medical application, providing benefits that could not be achieved in other ways, and thus being an acceptable public health measure. Concerning the freedom of choice issue, genetically modified foods add to the current level of product differentiation and provide further possibilities of choice, perhaps even new markets for entirely new product qualities. As one participant mentioned, this includes also the opportunity to choose between different kinds of production. Another well-known point regularlymade by the proponent side is the more reliable cultivation of genetically modified crops in the developing countries, offering the chance to reduce starvation and propagate development. Yet, the notion of progress seems also of relevance to the developed world. Since the western societies are used to continuous improvements in average quality of life, it should also be a matter of social concern to maintain the slope of development, and biotechnology is generally perceived as one of the key factors in technological innovation.

Distribution of benefits. The participating experts agreed that the current generation of genetically modified food products focuses its benefits on the producer side. Producers may gain competitive advantages through more effective use of agriculturally productive land, improved logistics due to enhanced storage and transportation qualities, and optimal use of processing capacities. However, such attributes are difficult to communicate to consumer markets. Apart from cost advantages transferred along the production chain, or claims of environmental friendliness, it was generally agreed upon that European consumers demand improvements in the actual quality characteristics of products.

Information. Although information and transparency are generally regarded as important features of a democratic public, there may sometimes be a risk in information itself. Consumers appear so sensitized that even the lowest objective risk figures may have devastating effects on perceived risk. The problem of sensitization extends to the labeling of genetically modified food ingredients. Consumers may misinterpret notes on the package label in such a way that labeled ingredients are automatically misperceived as risky ingredients. Responsibility for the public outrage was blamed on the usual suspects: environmental and consumer organizations having established a stable counterfactual association between genetic engineering and risk, and the media readily picking up such counterfactual messages and even multiplying them.

Freedom of choice. The purpose behind labeling of genetically engineered food products is to enable informed consumer choice. While several proponents argued that genetically modified food products provide more variety in food markets and thus by definition improve consumer choice, others were not so unconditionally optimistic. It was doubted if a choice between genetically modified products and unmodified products would even be possible: soybeans, for example, are not distributed separately on the world market, so that no producer or retailer can guarantee that his input material has definitely been free of genetically modified varieties. Consequently, virtually any traded product may contain traces of genetically modified material. One participant even predicted that consumers would only face a decision between products that are labeled and products that are not labeled. Furthermore, informed choice requires a certain amount of knowledge. Knowledge, however, may be formed upon information that is unbalanced or even deliberately biased, resulting in faulty judgments and, finally, in faulty decisions.

Decision power over foodstuffs. The question of who actually controls the development of the food sector is both a descriptive and a normative one. As expected, the perceptions of actual control varied wildly. The food processing industry participants felt no possibility to control the raw materials they used, especially when the materials were imported. Other participants maintained that exactly the food processing industry had the power to control primary production. In a similar way, control was assigned to the retailers, while others perceived just the opposite. The consumers were also referred to as the primary demand-side factor, ruling the food market by means of purchase and boycott, while others perceived them as largely powerless. Furthermore, monopolistic tendencies and the overwhelming influence of the US market were blamed.

Discussion

The results of the expert focus group discussins in Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the UK indicate that the European expert community attributes a generation pattern to the development and diffusion of genetically modified food products. Most products that have already entered the European market are perceived as a first generation whose quality attributes pertain to improved cultivation, processing, and distribution characteristics. Many producers hope that the second generation will take over the market for functional foods, improving the nutritional value of products and thus providing healthiness as a quality attribute. However, the second generation is still missing. Consequently, the current substantial assets of genetically modified food products reduce to cost advantages. It is assumed that decreases in the price of raw materials will carry over to subsequent stages of the production chain and finally enhance the price-performance ratio of consumer goods. A third key benefit is seen in the potential for a more sustainable production. Reduced herbicide expenditure in agriculture, for example, should meet the increased ecological awareness of European consumers. However, it is questionable if such a remote benefit can outcancel certain moral reservations that seem to be associated with sustainability as well. Many experts perceived a biased perspective on ecological matters in the public, only weakly associated with the restoring or maintenance of ecosystem functions, but strongly associated with the very absence of cultivation. In such a belief system, genetic engineering would be evaluated as a severe threat to the fabric of nature.

STUDY 2: THE VIEW OF THE CONSUMERS

The results of Study 1 indicate that European biotechnology experts expect three particular benefits to have a decisive impact on future demand for genetically modified food products: functional food innovations, price advantages, and environmentally sound production. Study 2 will explore if the experts’ expectations really correspond to what European consumers perceive as the risks and benefits of genetically modified food products. Means-end chains will be elicited using the laddering technique, a semi-structured qualitative interview and data analysis method (Reynolds and Gutman 1988). The technique starts with eliciting those salient product attributes the respondent regards important for choosing among a given set of products. For each salient product attribute, the interviewer uses a series of 'why is that important to you’ questions to get the respondent to reach increasingly abstract levels of explanation. The technique presupposes a hierarchical cognitive structure, and the idea is to uncover the entire chain from concrete and abstract attributes over functional and psychosocial consequences to instrumental and terminal values. Individual data (the 'ladders’) are usually aggregated into hierarchical value maps (HVMs), graphically representing the associative structures that are dominant in a given sample.

Method

Participants. Altogether, N=400 laddering interviews with regular beer and yoghurt consumers were conducted in Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, including 50 interviews per product category in each country. In the beer sample, quotas were imposed on consumption frequency (with extreme consumers excluded), education, and gender. In the yoghurt sample, quotas were imposed on consumption frequency, education, and presence of children in the household. All yoghurt respondents were main food shoppers of their household.

Product profiles. Four product profiles were developed for each product category. The yoghurt products varied with respect to fat content, production method, presence of additives, and texture: (a) traditional full-fat whole-milk yoghurt without additives, characterized by 'a nice taste and smooth texture’, (b) traditional low-fat skm-milk yoghurt without additives, characterized by 'a nice taste and thin texture’, (c) fat-free yoghurt containing stabilizers and antioxidants, characterized by 'a nice taste and smooth texture’, and (d) fat-free yoghurt produced with genetically modified starter cultures, characterized by 'a nice taste and smooth texture’.

The beer products varied with respect to production method, energy consumption/ environmental soundness, quality of raw materials, and price: (a) beer produced in a traditional way from high quality raw materials, sold at a medium price, (b) beer produced in a traditional way from standard quality raw materials, sold at a low price, (c) beer produced by means of modern process technology (but not genetic engineering), ensuring lower time and energy expenditure during the production process, and thus more environmentally sound, sold at a high price, and (d) beer produced by means of genetically modified yeast, ensuring reductions in time and energy expenditure during the production process, and thus more environmentally sound, sold at a low price.

Thus, the consumer benefits of applying genetic engineering in the yoghurt example were absence of fat and a smooth texture without the use of artificial additives, whereas in the beer case the consumer benefits of applying genetic engineering were environmentally sound production and a lower price. Naturalistic yoghurt products were created from new yoghurt cups, which were filled with a substance resembling yoghurt in weight and filling, and provided with labels containing the relevant product information. Naturalistic beer products were created from existing bottled beers that had their original labels removed before being equipped with the new labels containing the product information developed for this study. In this way, identical products were obtained for all beer and yoghurt alternatives, except for the label information. To make the product examples still more realistic, it was decided to supply the beer products with brand names ('Classic’ for the traditional, medium price beer, 'Economy’ for the traditional, low price beer, 'Hi-tech’ for the beer produced by unspecified modern process technology, and 'Green’ for the genetically modified beer). The yoghurts were kept as no-name products. All products were used for visual presentation only.

Procedure. In the first part of the interview, the participants were asked to rank the products according to preference and give their reasons for this ranking. In the second part, these salient attributes were used as starting points for the laddering procedure. Reverse laddering was used in cases where abstract attributes or consequences were mentioned initially. The interviewers listed the resulting ladders in standardized forms. In addition, all interviews were tape-recorded for subsequent quality checks.

Data analysis. After completion of the fieldwork, the Danish laddering data were categorized into attributes, consequences, and values. By thorough meaning-based interpretation of all individually mentioned concepts, the data were then coded into broader categories. The procedure was carried out separately for the beer and yoghurt data. The resulting categories were translated and applied to the German, British, and Italian data. Additional categories were added when necessary. All codes were finally checked and synchronized across countries, resulting in a 60-category system for the yoghurt data and a 61-category system for the beer data. Altogether, 2187 ladders were extracted from the yoghurt interviews and 1874 from the beer interviews. For both sets of products, the Danish interviews yielded by far the largest number of ladders (643 for yoghurt, 543 for beer), followed by Germany (557 for yoghurt, 497 for beer) and Italy (530 for yoghurt, 429 for beer), whereas the smallest number of ladders was obtained in the British interviews (457 for yoghurt, 405 for beer). The coded data were aggregated into HVMs with initial cut-off levels ranging from three to five respondents. Separate HVMs were produced for each product and country to account for cross-national differences. The respective fnal solutions were chosen by inspecting the interpretability of the HVMs.

Results and Discussion

Product preferences. Overall, the more traditional product alternatives were clearly preferred. More than half of the participants in all four countries ranked the medium-priced traditional beer as the product they preferred most of the four beers. Similarly, the traditional full-fat whole-milk yoghurt was most preferred by a majority of respondents in Denmark, Germany and Italy, while in the United Kingdom, the fat-free yoghurt with artificial components to ensure a smooth texture was most preferred. Thus, preference for the genetically modified products was generally low, and more so in Denmark and Germany than in the United Kingdom and Italy. In the German sample, about three fourth of the participants actually mentioned the genetically modified beer as the least preferred product. This contrasts with the British and Italian samples, where a considerable proportion of the participants claimed to prefer the genetically modified product over the three other products. The following sections will try to identify reasons for these low preferences in the HVMs for genetically modified yoghurt and beer. [For further details, see Bredahl (1998).]

Genetically modified yoghurt. Disclosure information about genetic engineering was correctly represented in most consumers. Figure 1 shows that this attribute was associated with negative consequences that counteract important life values. The most dominant association seems to be the belief that genetic engineering will turn yoghurt into an unwholesome and unnatural product, and, judging from the perceived consequences, the belief seems also to be tied up with feelings expressing unfamiliarity with the product. Thus, there were strong beliefs that ingestion of the product would reduce personal healthiness and that the product could not be trusted because of unknown long-term consequences on human health and the environment. These perceived consequences are crucial since they were generally believed to inhibit the achievement of important life values, such as a long and healthy life, happiness and inner harmony, security, and responsibility for nature and other people.

The belief that the application of genetic engineering would damage the environment was found primarily among Danish and German consumers, but there were no strong links from this belief to self-relevant psychosocial consequences or values, indicating that perceived environmental impact was possibly not of crucial personal importance. Furthermore, respondents in Denmark and Germany perceived genetic engineering in yoghurt to be morally wrong, and a number of respondents in these two countries as well as in the United Kingdom also opposed the application of genetic engineering in yoghurt by claiming that there was no need for this technology in food production at all. Nevertheless, the HVMs also show that the consumers were in fact aware of the benefits that had been added to the hypothetical products by means of genetic engineering, and, judging from the perceived consequences, these benefits were actually appreciated. Both the absence of additives and the absence of fat were mentioned as important product characteristics, and these attributes were believed to enhance a long and healthy life via increased healthiness. The smooth texture, which was claimed to have been achieved by means of genetic engineering, was also seen as desirable, at least in Denmark and the United Kingdom. Here, respondents claimed that a smooth texture would increase the enjoyment of consuming the product, and, in Denmark, the smooth texture was also linked to consuming the product without spilling, and extended usage possibilities (breakfast, dessert, or snack).

However, the results of the ranking procedure indicate that these positive attributes and consequences could generally not outweigh the perceived negative and undesirable consequences of genetic engineering. The HVMs point to some interesting cross-national differences, though the basic pattern of the associations remains the same. Danish, Germn and British consumers generally perceived a larger set of consequences of genetic engineering, and particularly in Denmark and Germany these consequences were closely related to personal values. This was apparently not the case in the United Kingdom where the ladders of perceived consequences of genetic engineering did generally not reach the value level. Moreover, security seems to be a more central value among Danish and Italian consumers than among British and German consumers, whereas the more social values (responsibility for nature and welfare of other people) seem more central to Danish and German consumers.

Genetically modified beer. The HVMs for genetically modified beer closely resemble the ones for genetically modified yoghurt. Again, application of genetic engineering was an important attribute, bringing a range of undesirable consequences about. The central associations were unwholesomeness, unnaturalness, and low trustworthiness of the resulting product. These consequences were typically believed to counteract the values long and healthy life, happiness and inner harmony, and security. Again, some respondents perceived genetic engineering as morally wrong and unnecessary in food production. Furthermore, undesirable side effects on personal health were expected. The HVMs indicate that the fact that a product is based on a modern and intensive production method is sufficient to trigger significant negative perceptions of the product. The attribute intensive brewing method was associated with poor quality and taste in all four countries. These associations, in turn, were linked to less enjoyment and the preclusion of happiness and personal well being.

Interestingly, environmental friendliness (which was one of the genetic engineering benefits attributed to the product) was valued in Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Italy, but not in Germany. In these three countries there seems to be no doubt about the significance of this attribute for consumer choice as the perceived consequences eventually reach the value level, the crucial values being responsibility for nature and unity with nature in Denmark and the United Kingdom, and improved quality of life in Italy. The German respondents generally believed that the application of genetic engineering did not benefit anyone but the producer. The relevance of the low price of the product as a consumer benefit is even more doubtful, as the respondents in all four countries generally associated the low price with lower quality and taste, while on the other hand they also pointed out a desirable money aspect. Again, the widest range of associations arising from the application of genetic engineering was found among Danish and German respondents, while there were particularly few associations to this attribute among the Italian respondents (note the higher cut-off levels in the Danish and German HVMs). In this case, the associations arising from this attribute reached the value level in the United Kingdom sample as well. This can probably be attributed to the fact that the British respondents, as the only ones, explicitly linked the application of gene technology to environmental soundness, which was perceived to lead to desirable consequences closely linked to life values.

GENERAL DISCUSSION

When the american corporation Advanced Genetic Science released the first transgenic organism into the environment in 1986, apocalyptic scenarios went through the media. For example, it was feared that the anti-frost microbes would cause long-term distortions of the global climate. Technicians had to wear astronaut-like protective clothing. Observing scientists from all over the world were far from certain that the consequences of the release would be reversible. More than twelve years later, the scenery has changed. Science, industry, and public authorities are clearly supportive of biotechnology in most European countries. Process derivatives of genetically modified soybeans alone will soon be included in more than 30,000 consumer produts. The public, however, seem to have a problem with these novel foods. Several consumer surveys all across Europe suggest that the benefits advocated by science, industry, and public authorities have still not managed to outweigh the risks perceived by consumers. Yet, surveys cannot provide answers about the underlying cognitive structure that leads consumers to risk evaluations. Neither can surveys assess conceptual differences between consumers and experts. Consequently, the present paper has addressed these issues in two qualitative studies.

FIGURE 1

HIERARCHICAL VALUE MAPS FOR GENETICALLY MODIFIED YOGHURT AND BEER

Study 1 used data from expert focus groups conducted in Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the UK to investigate which risks and benefits the European expert community expects to be decisive for the future of genetically modified food products. The results indicate that the biotechnology community is going to concentrate their activities on three key benefits: functional food innovations, price advantages, and environmentally sound production. According to Scholderer, Balderjahn, and Will (1998), these are exactly the key benefits on which the biotechnology industry is planning to build communication strategies for consumer markets.

Study 2 used laddering interviews to investigate which risks and benefits European consumers actually associate with the product attribute 'genetically modified’. Again, samples from Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the UK were included in a cross-national design. Both for yoghurt and beer products, the attribute 'genetically modified’ was more strongly associated with risks than benefits. Across countries, a wide range of negative consequences was perceived, with the main focus on beliefs relating to unhealthiness and low trustworthiness of the resulting products. These beliefs were generally seen to inhibit the attainment of individual life values such as happiness and inner harmony, a long healthy life, quality of life, security, and the social values responsibility for nature and responsibility for the welfare of other people. Notably, consumers evaluated risks and benefits of genetic engineering not only in the light of consequences for themselves, but also for the environment and future generations.

Relating the results of Study 1 and Study 2 yields several points where expert perceptions clearly contradict consumer perceptions. The first point is the experts’ plan to position genetically modified products in the functional foods market. A defining characteristic of functional foods is that they claim healthiness. However, the attribute 'genetically modified’ was in all countries, and in both product categories, associated with perceptions of unwholesomeness and (with the only exception being beer in Italy) unhealthiness.

The second point is the experts’ plan to communicate the potential for a more sustainable production as added value to consumer markets. The genetically modified beer in Study 2 claimed that reduced energy expenditure during production would provide an environmentally sound product. However, only British and Italian consumers were inclined to accept the added value claim. Danish consumers were ambivalent. German consumers, constituting the largest beer market in Europe, completely ignored the environmental soundness claim but considered genetically modified beer an unnatural product.

The third point is the experts’ plan to utilize price advantages in competition with traditionally produced foodstuffs. The genetically modified beer in Study 2 claimed to be sold at a low price. However, consumers in Denmark, Germany, and the UK were still ambivalent, associating the low price not only with value for money, but also with poor quality and taste. Italian consumers unequivocally inferred poor quality and taste, ignoring the price benefit.

Taken together, the results of our studies suggest serious perceptual incongruities between experts and consumers. The same attributes that are considered key benefits by the experts are considered risks by the consumers. This is likely to become a substantial problem for future information and communication activities. Products that derive their benefit claims from such ambiguos attributes may be perceived as an attempt to trick consumers into purchase. However, this is an empirical question, currently under investigation in an experimental study. Information effects, source effects, and product class effects will be tested in another cross-national design, enabling us to draw detailed conclusions about the way risk/benefit information is affecting attitude formation and attitude change processes in consumers.

REFERENCES

Bredahl, Lone (1998), "Consumers’ Cognitions with regard to Genetically Modified FoodsBResults of a Qualitative Study in Four Countries", MAPP Working Paper No. 59, The Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus.

Bredahl, Lone, Klaus G. Grunert, and Lynn J. Frewer (1998), "Consumer Attitudes and Decision-Making with regard to Genetically Modified Food ProductsBa Review of the Literature and a Presentation of Models for Future Research", MAPP Working Paper No. 52, The Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus.

European Commission (1997), Eurobarometer 46.1: The Europeans and Modern Biotechnology. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

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Reynolds, Thomas J. and Jonathan Gutman (1988), "Laddering Theory, Method, Analysis, and Interpretation", Journal of Advertising Research, February/March 1988, 11-31.

Scholderer, Joachim, Ingo Balderjahn, and Simone Will (1998), "Communicating the Risks and Benefits of Genetically Engineered Food Products to the Public: The View of Experts from four European Countries", MAPP Working Paper No. 57, The Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus.

Smink, Carla J. and Anneke M. Hamstra (1994), "Impacts of New Biotechnology in Food Production on Consumers", SWOKA Research Report No. 170, The SWOKA Institute for Consumer Research, The Hague.

Sparks, Paul, Richard Shepherd, and Lynn J. Frewer (1994), "Gene Technology, Food Production, and Public Opinion: A UK Study", Agriculture and Human Values, 11(1), 19-28.

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Authors

Joachim Scholderer, University of Potsdam, Germany
Ingo Balderjahn, University of Potsdam, Germany
Lone Bredahl, The MAPP Centre, Denmark
Klaus G. Grunert, The MAPP Centre, Denmark,



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999



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Wenbo Wang, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

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P1. Constructed Preferences in Time-Money Tradeoffs: Evidence for Greater Violation of Procedural Invariance for Time as Opposed to Money Elicitations

Nazli Gurdamar Okutur, London Business School, UK
Jonathan Zev Berman, London Business School, UK

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