"Since the first voluntary bans on genetically modified (GM) food occurred in Europe in 1998, European retailers and manufacturers have contended that they've simply responded to consumer concerns," says Nick Kalaitzandonakes, professor and director of MU's Economics and Management of Agrobiotechnology Center (EMAC). "But a closer look reveals that the actions of some key players in the global food industry appear to be motivated more by economic self-interest and less by consumer interests."

In an article published this spring in the journal, Nature Biotechnology, Kalaitzandonakes and Jos Bijman, a senior researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, argue that these voluntary bans - first on GM food ingredients, then on products from animals reared on GM feed - were initiated by a few key food retailers attempting to strategically position their private label brands in the marketplace.

"These retailers repeatedly preempted and exceeded regulatory requirements, inviting public attention to their actions and establishing themselves as gatekeepers for food safety," Kalaitzandonakes says. "In order to remain competitive, other supermarket chains had to follow suit."

After bans by food retailers became more widespread, food manufacturers also announced GM bans, he says. "The risk of brand damage from side-by-side comparison with non-GM private label products supplied a strong incentive for manufacturers to adopt bans."

In a multi-country comparison, Kalaitzandonakes and Bijman found the intensity of GM bans correlated more closely with private label market penetration than with consumer attitudes in those markets.

"Despite similar consumer attitudes toward GM food in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, the food retailers in these countries have responded very differently," he says. "Where private label brands have enjoyed high market penetration, such as the UK and Switzerland, GM bans have been pervasive. Where private labels have a more limited market share, such as Japan, GM bans have been absent."

Whether companies are serving as gatekeepers for food safety or strategically exploiting market conditions, Kalaitzandonakes said the industry's actions may have influenced consumer attitudes.

"Our research indicates efforts to improve biotech acceptance through 'consumer education' will have little impact," he said. "This is both an issue for biotech products currently on the market and for future innovations in biotech. The global food industry and its interests must be accounted for in the innovation process."