Could Deoxyribonucleic Acid Be in Your Food?

It’s almost too good to be true, and certainly a gift for any science communication blogger out there . . . can it be?

80% of Americans support mandatory labelling of food containing DNA. 

My colleague Arjan, who’s much wittier than I am, suggested the label go something like this:

Product may contain trace amounts of DNA; DNA has been linked with cancers and other disorders; There is a high probability pregnant mothers will pass DNA to their unborn children

The Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University has a project called the Food Demand Survey which surveys Americans regarding their attitudes and sentiments to their food. Before we’re even going to address this claim about DNA, let’s think about the methodology.

The information comes from Volume 2: Issue 9 (January 2015) of their self-published online reports. So the first point to make is that this methodology is not peer reviewed. However we can glean some of the methodology from Lusk and Murray (2014). The survey has been running since May 2013 and goes out each month online to survey at least 1000 people, but no word on what their response rate is like. Each month they add an ad hoc question which doesn’t follow the basic survey layout and the DNA result comes out of the question.

So the question this month was:

Do you support or oppose the following government policies?

  • A tax on sugared sodas (39% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of marijuana (47% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of food products made with transfat (56% Supported)
  • A ban on the sale of raw, unpasteurised milk (59% Supported)
  • Calorie limits for school lunches (64% Supported)
  • Mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus (69% Supported)
  • Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA (80% Supported)
  • Mandatory labels on food produced with genetic engineering (82% Supported)
  • A requirement that school lunches contain two servings of fruit and veg (84% Supported)
  • Mandatory country of origin labels for meat (87% Supported)

Really, without further methodology questions all we can really say is more of these particular Americans (a number we know is less than 1000) want mandatory labelling on foods containing DNA than a tax on sugared sodas. Without sample size data we have no idea whether that difference is significant or not (although if they surveyed 100 people, and 80% want DNA labelling, then that is significantly different from a random 50:50 distribution).

But here’s the thing: regardless of methodology, the idea that there are any people in a survey that aims to be informative who are concerned about DNA being in their food is very concerning indeed.

In the title of this post, I used an old journalistic trick by using DNA’s more formal name which is long, hard to pronounce and contains the scary ‘acid’ word. It’s the kind of question that we’d laugh about if it caught out our most hated politician. But the survey appeared to ask about DNA. I can only conclude this is a sample of people who have never even watched Jurassic Park, never mind the one respondent who said they’d read the bible as an agricultural text (this led me to the best site ever – Biblical Research Reports: Farming).

DNA has been one of the most amazing discoveries in science, and has been so completely misunderstood by the respondents of this survey that it’s unbelievable. And yet these consumers, by the same survey, place the highest value on the safety and nutrition of their food. Instead of laughing at them, it’s my role as a self-professed science communicator to give them the tools and understanding to interpret the information they need to achieve those values.

In America, it’s just a particularly obese mountain to climb.

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5 thoughts on “Could Deoxyribonucleic Acid Be in Your Food?

  1. Kathy

    As an American scientist, I am perpetually stunned by the ignorance and the hostility toward science here. Trying to increase scientific literacy often feels like preaching to the choir. Those who might benefit the most refuse to listen.

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    1. What do you think the answer is? My mind does boggle a bit, you very rarely encounter that kind of person here in Scotland (I’ve met maybe one anti-vaxxer in my life, and even though they were an idiot their child did have autism) – I feel like if I talk to any audience in Scotland I can find a way in, but there would be audiences in America that would never receive me.

      And I really think it’s is the responsibility of ALL scientists to support and promote knowledge transfer, but it is SO hard!

      Don’t envy you Kathy 🙂

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  2. I really can’t understand how people can not know what DNA is. I’m sure this is taught in secondary school (in the UK at least) and is talked about on TV and Radio all the tme. You shouldn’t have to be a trained scientist to realise that anything living, or that was once living contains DNA. It’s both funny and sad that so many people don’t understand this….

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