There’s DNA in food?! That’s disgusting!

This story is going around: Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA? 80% of Americans support that.

According to a recent survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics, over 80% of Americans said they would support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” roughly the same number that support the mandatory labeling of GMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.”

For anyone with a modicum of science understanding, you can see how silly and pointless that first suggestion is. All living things contain DNA. As the above-linked piece notes, it would be as useless as labeling it  “contains atoms” or, even worse, “contains chemicals”. The problem may lie in the fact that the average person doesn’t know what these words mean. They are falling for media fear mongering about science words, where “chemicals” are bad and “DNA” means genetically modified. Or, is it the question and its context?

The LA Times notes that perhaps people aren’t that dumb but that the question in the survey was asked in a confusing context: Food labels: Are Americans really dumb enough to worry about food containing DNA?. The real story in this story might be that polling is not a great way to gage public opinion for various reasons and CERTAINLY not a way to dictate new policies. People may have other reasons for answering a certain way in polls – they could be being funny (this was an online poll) or the question may not have been clear. (My least favorite question is “Do you believe in UFOs?” – What does that even mean?)

The Washington Post goes so far as to say: Why you can ignore that survey showing Americans want to label food containing DNA. So, let’s actually do that. It’s a dumb survey. It probably doesn’t mean what many think it means.

It’s a bad habit for knowledgable (or perceived knowledgable) people to point and laugh at the ignorant ‘other’ but that really does no good. Things are almost always more complicated than that. There is a long way to go with regards to the GMO issue. Labeling is probably not a good move. Sure, education is needed but let’s not get sidetracked.

  35 comments for “There’s DNA in food?! That’s disgusting!

  1. Ricardo
    January 22, 2015 at 12:56 PM

    “The real story in this story might be that polling is not a great way to gage public opinion for various reasons and CERTAINLY not a way to dictate new policies.”

    That’s an interesting point and very relevant, since there is a growing number of people proposing that online polls are a better approach to “direct democracy” that the current “corrupted” system.

    In Argentina we even have a “Net Party” that proposes that approach and have a website with polls where the people can vote on current ordinances proposals being considered by the Council of the city of Buenos Aires. (in Spanish)

  2. Mike C.
    January 22, 2015 at 2:51 PM

    Next they’ll be warning us of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide.

  3. Steve
    January 22, 2015 at 2:58 PM

    Well it is the main ingredient in acid rain, also quite lethal if taken in sufficient quantity.

  4. rhapakatui
    January 22, 2015 at 3:48 PM

    Proof positive that Trolls are not only real, but their population is booming. This story deserves a “Cryptozoology” tag as well.

  5. ChristineRose
    January 22, 2015 at 3:55 PM

    I’ve been unable to find any details on this survey, but I suspect that people were reading it as wanting labels saying “Genetically modified Strawberries containing fish DNA” rather than just “Genetically modified Strawberries.” If they really did just phrase at as “DNA” I can see why people would be confused and pick the better safe than sorry (i.e., labeled).

  6. Bill T.
    January 22, 2015 at 4:02 PM

    Beat me to it Mike. I hate you.

  7. Russ L
    January 22, 2015 at 7:52 PM

    The survey can be seen at OSU Food Demand Survey. Quite a bit of data there. The 7th of 10 questions (support/oppose) in one section of the results: “Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” Supported by 80%. What really got me kicking was that the 8th question-the very next question- was: “Mandatory labels on foods produced with genetic engineering.” Supported by 82%. Did people think that those 2 questions were actually asking the same thing or WHAT? It was an online survey of at least 1,000 individuals supposedly selected to represent all of us–well at least all of us willing to take part in such a survey. I believe it is conducted monthly. It is obvious to me that it must be a lot of work. Hope its worth it.

  8. vondrax
    January 22, 2015 at 7:52 PM

    Speaking only for myself, I would almost prefer a warning label if the food contains NO DNA.

  9. January 22, 2015 at 9:10 PM


  10. January 22, 2015 at 9:13 PM
  11. Colonel Tom
    January 22, 2015 at 10:31 PM

    Multiple candies and soft drinks would contain so little to not be detected. I’ll leave to debate if those are “food”. I’d ponder many processing methods/cooking leaving enough or large enough fragments to have meaning. There there is blood.

    Most people do not catch it when you add an double article into the the sentence, failure to have proper proficiency as a proof reader hardly translate to being uninformed. To expect real results, real questions might be asked.

  12. Russ L
    January 22, 2015 at 10:49 PM

    After a more thorough reading of the survey results, I must agree with ChristineRose. I think the DNA question was poorly written. I don’t think the intent was to see if people knew the difference between DNA and GMO.

  13. MisterNeutron
    January 23, 2015 at 12:24 AM

    It also pays to remember that almost everything we eat is the product of human tinkering with nature. If you were transported back to a time before agriculture, when we were all hunter-gatherers, you wouldn’t find much that would be familiar. Does anyone actually believe that what we now think of as “dairy cows” used to roam free, or that apple trees produced fruit the size of your fist? We domesticated wild species, and then bred them into forms that never existed in nature, and almost certainly would never have evolved on their own. In short, they’re almost all “genetically modified.”

    The only thing that’s different about so-called GMO’s is the method of altering the animal, vegetable, grain, etc. It’s done with precise, purposeful gene alteration. Before that, it was done with random, roll-the-dice cross-breeding and selective breeding. One could argue that GMO techiques are a lot safer and more controlled than what came before.

  14. David H
    January 23, 2015 at 12:24 AM

    Well, if DHMO is not dangerous, why do they have a Material Safety Data Sheet for it?
    I mean, they have to do it for CHEMICALS, and we know chemicals are bad!

    My cousin died from exposure to DMHO.
    He fell off a bridge into a whole river of it, and it killed him.

  15. January 23, 2015 at 12:53 AM

    Regarding the question “Do you believe in UFOs?”… I once foolishly got into a stupid argument with someone on YouTube regarding one of those videos of UFOs (one that was clearly an insect on a lens), something along the lines of “cloaked alien in video appears on the news”…

    These people seem to believe that UFO == aliens. I tried to make them understand that it stand for unidentified flying object, and that every bird you don’t recognize is technically a UFO. Arguing with those people is foolish and frustrating… I don’t do it anymore.

  16. DaveMc
    January 23, 2015 at 4:09 AM

    Perhaps a more interesting question would be “If a product you regularly buy was labelled ‘contains DNA’ would you stop buying it?”

  17. busterggi
    January 23, 2015 at 8:38 AM

    1000’s of people die every year from overexposure to it – its just not natural!

  18. busterggi
    January 23, 2015 at 8:41 AM

    No more Twinkies for you.

  19. Colonel Tom
    January 23, 2015 at 9:29 AM

    I wouldn’t buy it. I would be uneasy about why the company thought that it was necessary to label a product as such. Or, why the FDA would require a company to label the can as such. Not understanding the bizarre situation, I would avoid it.

    Conversely, if polled about GMO foods, I would give a negative opinion. Not because of any health concern, but because of the business practices of Monsanto and the high potential of genetic cross-over to other plants in the environment and other environmental effects. My opinion is therefore “lumped” into the same category as, to be polite, a bunch of wackadoodles.

  20. Colonel Tom
    January 23, 2015 at 9:36 AM

    EXACTLY, I have seen UFOs, I have witnessed my name on USAF reports of unexplained and mysterious “somethings”. I even believe that there is likely something going on that isn’t completely explained yet. Yet, the possibility of it being extraterrestrial is so small, and there are so many strong reasons why it is not, that I have nothing but contempt and pity for those that believe “the aliens” So when asked “Do you believe in UFOs”, what kind of answer can I give?

  21. ChristineRose
    January 23, 2015 at 11:17 AM

    Thanks Russ. I had seen that document before. It doesn’t say anything about what the posed question was, or the methodology of the survey. As such I don’t think we can evaluate what people were really thinking.

  22. January 23, 2015 at 11:31 AM

    @Colonel Tom
    “Most people do not catch it when you add an double article into the the sentence”

    …or a “there there” 🙂

  23. January 23, 2015 at 12:04 PM

    I agree that there’s only so far that mocking ignorance can go before it gets tiresome and perhaps patronizingly obnoxious (“DBAD”). But the “DNA should be labeled” question I think is valid and highlights the issue of unnecessary labeling. I don’t know how many underinformed but well-educated people I know who have told me they don’t like “chemicals” in their food or their medications. I can only wonder what my woo-minded friends would say if a can of peas or power bar was labeled: “Contains chemicals.”

    Of course the online poll by Oklahoma certainly needs to be considered cautiously, but from what I can see from the source that Sharon has provided, it’s a fairly straightforward questionnaire item.

  24. Colonel Tom
    January 23, 2015 at 1:11 PM

    Now you’re ruined it for the rest of the class. ^^Grin^^

  25. WMcCreery
    January 23, 2015 at 1:29 PM

    That stuff will KILL you!!

  26. Colonel Tom
    January 23, 2015 at 3:21 PM

    I believe you are making an irrational and unsupported leap from the fact that people often use verbal shorthand, ie “chemicals” when they are in fact referring to an entity such as non-biologically produced industrial purified chemicals. It also could be they are referring to a vague notion such as trans-fat.

    Some researchers do detailed research to such matters of opinions, such as a follow up asking the individual what types of “DNA” they were concerned. Based on some of the Harris Poll questions I have answered, a follow up question might be “Were you aware that DNA is a fundamental part of almost all life on the planet?”
    Even my last statement is a little iffy because then we have to decide if virus are alive. “Were you aware that DNA is a fundamental part of all cellular life on the planet?” , better question.

    P.S. I suspect that Twinkies contain no DNA.

  27. Russ L
    January 23, 2015 at 5:57 PM

    Thank you MisterNeutron for the excellent post!

    Regarding the mandatory DNA labelling survey item, I emailed OSU and asked if the literal meaning was the intended meaning. The Dept of Ag Economics professor replied promptly that “it was a ‘check’ question-on people’s knowledge and to see whether they weren’t just checking ‘support’ or ‘oppose’ on everything-and to put the responses to other policy items in context.” So I gather it was meant to be taken literally. However, as pointed out by ChristineRose, some people may have been reading more into it. Consequently, as she also pointed out: “I don’t think we can evaluate what people were really thinking.”

    Should foods actually be labelled “Contains DNA”? That would provide no health or nutrition information and would likely cause some people to be suspicious for no reason whatever. Should foods be labelled “Contains GMO”? Health or nutrition info? Nope. “No GMOs?” Health or nutrition info? Nope. More money for it? Yep. GMOs have been intensly studied and researched. After 20 years and over a Trillion meals, what is left to prove?

    I ain’t quite done yet. As to the use of the word “chemicals” as verbal shorthand to mean only certain types of chemicals, I classify that kind of thing, along with jargon, corporate-speak, generally accepted slang, street language, sloppy speech, etc as Complemtary Alternative Vocabulation. Long as ya know what it is it don’t much hurt nothin. Can be kinda fun. May be useful, even.

  28. kiljoy6166
    January 24, 2015 at 4:41 AM

    Was it the DMHO or the sudden stop that killed him?

  29. Russian Skeptic
    January 24, 2015 at 12:30 PM

    Well, there is at least some reason for concern. There was a true-or-false poll in Russia which had a statement: ‘Only GMOs contain genes’ – and many people indeed marked it as ‘true’!

  30. Christine Rose
    January 24, 2015 at 1:11 PM

    Thanks very much for this Russ. I think the idea that people were “voting the ticket” is also valid. This seems to have been widely picked up by the press as proof that Americans are science-literate enough to have strong opinions about GMOs but science-illiterate enough to be completely unaware of what a GMO is. I think that’s probably not the case.

  31. January 24, 2015 at 4:04 PM

    #Russ L: I’ll concede that “chemicals” might be verbal shorthand for “bad chemicals” or “toxic chemicals” (and, by the way, I love that term “vocabulation”) but I’m not completely convinced that “the folk” are using it that way. When pressed, someone might say, “Oh, I meant, y’know, chemicals that aren’t healthy for you.” But there have been a few instances when I politely pressed on with someone who apparently thought that “chemicals” strictly referred to things like arsenic and other troublesome substances where the “dose makes the poison.” When I pointed out that water is a chemical and bunnies are made of chemicals, I’ve met with actual resistance. So I’m not sure we can simply write it off as street language…and certainly not “jargon,” “corporate speak” or even “slang” (as long as we’ve got our linguist hats on.)

    I’d go along with “sloppy speech” or “Complementary Alternative Vocabulation”, but aren’t those the very sorts of misleading speech and writing habits we’d like to combat?

  32. Jeff
    January 24, 2015 at 6:03 PM

    Most surveys determine success based on volume of responses versus quality of responses. To ensure that you have good quality in your survey, the respondent must be checked for understanding of the question asked of him or her. Unfortunately, many surveys are rushed for completion, skewed to obtain a desired result, or open to misinterpretation.

  33. Colonel Tom
    January 25, 2015 at 3:26 PM

    The Harris Poll often has a question such as “Choose “Often” as the answer to this question” To make sure people are actually reading the poll. I find fault as it should ask something like “All cows have horns” to make sure that the pollees know that some cows are a breed that do not have horns, some have their horns removed and those cows are horses. (old joke)

  34. al
    January 31, 2015 at 11:44 AM

    i think a lot of folks think DNA is something only in animals. so genetically engineered would be about fucking with the food in a variety of ways(like BGH), while having DNA in your veggies would be a specific sort of engineering that might be considered differently. course either question is ridiculous and makes me wonder what the researchers were actually studying.

  35. WMcCreery
    February 4, 2015 at 11:54 AM

    I think that they are scared of the letters DNA just like GMO

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