CHICAGO -- Europeans and Japanese don't want gene-altered crops. Frito-Lay, McDonald's and Gerber have rejected them, too. But grocers say American consumers don't seem to care one way or the other -- at least not yet.
''It's a non-issue. They're not even thinking about it,'' said Richard Ramsey, who runs a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Blountstown, Fla. ''I've not heard anything,'' said Dave Eber, who manages a Marsh store in Indianapolis.
However, support for crops that produce genetically engineered food is slipping, even if a majority of consumers still back the technology, according to a poll released at the supermarket industry's annual convention, which opened Sunday.
Sixty-three percent of shoppers surveyed in January said they would be very or somewhat likely to buy a new variety of produce that had been genetically engineered to resist insect damage. That's down from 77 percent in a similar poll four years ago.
Fifty-four percent said in January they were very or somewhat likely to buy produce that was modified to taste better or stay fresh longer, compared with 58 percent in 1996. The new survey, conducted by Research International USA for the Food Marketing Institute, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
A summary of the poll's findings said ''consumers are less inclined to purchase these products'' than they were in 1996.
The government has approved approximately 50 varieties of genetically engineered crops, and gene-altered soybeans and corn can be found in foods throughout the supermarket.
More than half of this year's soybean crop and 20 percent of this year's corn plantings will be of biotech varieties that are resistant to a popular herbicide or insect pests. Biotech animals, including leaner hogs and fast-growing salmon, are in development.
A few food processors, including Frito-Lay and Gerber, have stopped buying genetically engineered ingredients, citing fears about consumer resistance.
Most people, however, don't realize how widely used these so-called biotech ingredients have become, said Thomas Hoban, a North Carolina State University sociologist who tracks consumer attitudes about food. Nearly four in 10 questioned in the January poll said they had heard nothing about biotech food.
In Europe, ''not only has the support for food and agricultural biotechnology gone down but also support for medical biotechnology. ... The U.S. is maybe overly positive. It will swing down, maybe,'' Hoban said.
Consumers who don't want to eat biotech food are expected to provide a boost to the $6 billion-a-year organic industry. The lone major grocery chain to reject biotech food so far is Whole Foods Market, which focuses on natural foods and stands to gain if consumers turn away from gene-altered products.
Biotech food ''is not as much of an issue nationally as it will become,'' said James Hopper, senior vice president of natural food group operations for Tree of Life Inc. of St. Augustine, Fla.
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