The study conducted by an international research team attempts to trace consumers' actual shopping behaviour with respect to genetically modified products in ten EU countries, following the EU introduction of a mandatory labelling scheme for GM foods in 2003.
The results unveiled significant discrepancies when comparing people's everyday choices at supermarkets to the attitudes they expressed towards GM foods in questionnaires. Nearly half of the people who bought GM-labelled foods said they would not buy such products, while 30% of consumers buying them did not know whether they had bought them.
In practice, a majority of respondents was unable to distinguish between GM product packs and conventional ones, but the study suggests that this is not much of a problem as people generally pay scant attention to labels, with less than half of the respondents saying they actually read them before making a purchase.
"This study reveals that, whatever people say in opinion polls, most do not actively avoid GM foods in grocery stores, suggesting that they are not greatly concerned with the GM issue," said Professor Vivian Moses of Kings College London, co-ordinator for the project.
Environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Europe nevertheless commented that this conclusion may be too hasty. Rather than being disinterested, the majority of Europeans do not know that there are GM foods on the market and are therefore not looking for labels. It also said that as labelling is left to the producer, it is often not clear enough.
In addition, the NGO expressed concerns about the limited scope of the study, as four of its ten countries did not actually have GM products on the market. Cooking oil derived from GM-soya was the main product in question.
However, the study claims to have detected a swing towards more favourable public perceptions. "There are signs that in future, climate and population restraints to food availability may lead to more accepting attitudes to GM-foodstuff," the study concludes, pointing out that most Europeans have in practice already accepted GM products as "a significant part of their food chain" by consuming meat and dairy products derived from livestock feeding on GM-soybeans.