There’s some social science research about nanotechnology and food labeling in the US making its rounds on the internet. From an Oct. 28, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),
New research from North Carolina State University and the University of Minnesota finds that people in the United States want labels on food products that use nanotechnology – whether the nanotechnology is in the food or is used in food packaging. The research (“Hungry for Information: Public Attitudes Toward Food Nanotechnology and Labeling”) also shows that many people are willing to pay more for the labeling.
Study participants were particularly supportive of labeling for products in which nanotechnology had been added to the food itself, though they were also in favor of labeling products in which nanotechnology had only been incorporated into the food packaging.
The Oct. 28, 2013 North Carolina State University (NCSU) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, has a title that can be viewed as misleading especially in light of how other news media have interpreted it,
Public wants labels for food nanotech — and they’re willing to pay for it
Yes but it’s not exactly ‘the public’ (from the news release),
“We wanted to know whether people want nanotechnology in food to be labeled, and the vast majority of the participants in our study do,” says Dr. Jennifer Kuzma, senior author of a paper on the research and Goodnight-Glaxo Wellcome Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at NC State. “Our study is the first research in the U.S. to take an in-depth, focus group approach to understanding the public perception of nanotechnology in foods.” [emphasis mine]
The researchers convened six focus groups – three in Minnesota and three in North Carolina – and gave study participants some basic information about nanotechnology and its use in food products. Participants were then asked a series of questions addressing whether food nanotechnology should be labeled. Participants were also sent a follow-up survey within a week of their focus group meeting. [emphasis mine]
Since ‘focus group’ isn’t likely to grab attention in a headline whoever wrote the news release decided on a more dramatic approach citing the ‘public’ which resulted in this still more dramatic headline for an Oct. 29, 2013 news item on Red Orbit (Note: Links have been removed),
Most Americans Want To See Labels On Their Nanofoods
Americans overwhelmingly want to know when they are eating food products that use nanotechnology, and are happy to pay the additional labeling costs, according to a new study published this month in the journal Review of Policy Research.
“Our study is the first research in the United States to take an in-depth, focus group approach to understanding the public perception of nanotechnology in foods,” said Dr. Jennifer Kuzma of North Carolina State University, the study’ s senior author. [emphasis mine] “We wanted to know whether people want nanotechnology in food to be labeled, and the vast majority of the participants in our study do.”
Curious, I read the paper (which is open access),
Hungry for Information: Public Attitudes Toward Food Nanotechnology and Labeling by Jonathan Brown, University of Minnesota; Jennifer Kuzma, North Carolina State University. Published: Online Oct. 7  in Review of Policy Research DOI: 10.1111/ropr.12035
First off, this study is, by my standards, a well written piece of research. The writers have grounded their work in the literature, explained their approach and methodology, and provided many appendices including one with the script used by the focus group moderators. Surprisingly, I’ve read more than one piece of ‘social science research’ which did not provide one or more of the previously mentioned aspects essential to a basic, solid research paper. In other words, there are a lot of sloppy social science research papers out there. Thankfully, this is not one of them. That said, I do have a comment about the paper’s title and a nit to pick regarding the methodology.
The paper’s title has a ‘look at me’ quality which has found its way into the news release and ultimately some of the headlines in various online publications (including this post). The paper’s title in the context of a publication called Review of Policy Research is less problematic due to its audience, i.e., policy wonks who are likely to discount the title as simply an attempt to get attention. The point is that the audience for Review of Policy Research is not likely to take that title at face value, i.e., uncritically. However, as this ‘look at me’ title is rewritten and makes its way through various media outlets, the audience changes to one that is much more likely to take it at face value.
Researchers are in a bind. They want attention for their work but can risk media coverage which distorts their findings. As for the level of distortion to be found, here’s information about the methodology and sample (participants), from the research paper,
Seven focus groups, 90 minutes in length and ranging in size from seven to ten participants, were conducted between September 2010 and January 2011 in the Minnesota cities of Minneapolis, Richfield, and Bloomington, and the North Carolina cities of Raleigh, Garner, and Cary. [emphasis mine' Cities were selected based on the main city location, the largest suburb, and finally a randomly selected city between 30,000 and 60,000 residents, all within the counties of Hennepin, Minnesota, and Wake, North Carolina.
Participants were recruited using a stratified random sample, with the goal of having equal female and male numbers in each group, while matching a demographic county profile. Those who had a prior background in or extensive knowledge of nanotechnology were excluded from participation. The profiles were based on age, sex, race, education, family household income, and ideology (liberal, moderate, and conservative) criteria and generated by means of census data in conjunction with information supplied from select city community centers. Telephone and cell phone samples for each city were acquired and used to recruit 12 participants for each focus group, with the expectation of 75 percent attendance per group. Participants were given light dinner refreshments and $100 cash for their participation.
A total of 56 participants partook in one of the seven focus groups (n1 = 8, n2 = 10, n3 = 8, n4 = 7, n5 = 8, n6 = 7, and n7 = 8). The overall demographic distribution contained more males (64 percent, n = 36) versus females (36 percent, n = 20); whites/Caucasians (84 percent, n = 47) versus blacks/African Americans (11 percent, n = 6) and Asians/Pacific Islanders (4 percent, n = 2); and those with a postgraduate or professional degree (27 percent, n = 15) versus college graduate (23 percent, n = 13), some college (16 percent, n = 9), high school graduate (14 percent, n = 8), technical college graduate (7 percent, n = 4), some high school (5 percent, n = 3), some technical college (2 percent, n = 1), and “Other” education (2 percent, n = 1). Race/ethnicity and education had n = 1 and n = 2 “No Answer” responses, respectively. The most common age bracket was 50–60 (36 percent, n = 20) compared with “Over 60” (23 percent, n = 13), 41–49 (23 percent, n = 13), 31–39 (7 percent, n = 4), and “Under 30” (7 percent, n = 4). Additionally, two provided “No Answer” for their ages.
So, 56 people, at the most. from two different states are representing Americans. Under Study Limitations subhead, the researchers outline some of their own concerns regarding this research (from the paper),
Several limitations of our focus group study are worth noting. The small sample size (n = 56 for focus groups and worksheet responses; n = 34 for postsurvey) reduces inferential power for the quantitative worksheet and postsurvey results. Additionally, a small sample size coupled with underrepresentation for multiple demographics (e.g., non-Caucasians, females, those under age 40, and so on) restricts generalizability of results, whether quantitative or qualitative. For focus groups, however, this is to be expected as the goal is in-depth and quality discussions that explore issues heretofore under-investigated. [all emphases mine]
The nature of focus group execution presents further challenges. For example, introverted individuals may not participate as readily, and this potential imbalance skews the discussion toward the extraverted participants’ ideas. A technique to mitigate this bias, which was employed by our moderators, is to directly ask quieter participants questions once a topic is generated. Although directed calling is effective at ensuring all views on a specific topic are eventually heard, more talkative participants nonetheless exert essential control as their initial contributions determine the topics to be covered. Extraverts will thus be overrepresented in the conversation flow.
Another challenge with employing focus groups relates to moderator-controlled variations. While one discussion guide (i.e., set of specific guiding questions) was used for all focus groups (see Appendix A), the moderator frequently had to ask various follow-up questions to maintain substantive dialog. Consequently, several impromptu questions stimulating important exchanges were not raised uniformly in all groups. Fortunately, such variability was not widely problematic, as all focus groups consisted of the same six phases with the same preliminary prompts. Below we present the results from our study that relate to food and nanotechnology products and their labeling.
The results from the research are suggestive but this work does not offer proof that Americans want nano information on their food labels and are will to pay more. However this research lays the groundwork for future queries as the researchers themselves note in their Discussion at the end of the paper,
This study is the first, to our knowledge, to concentrate on public attitudes toward nanofood labeling in the United States. As such, we took an exploratory and grounded theory approach to reveal insights that could be important for developing policies and programs. Focus group discussions, in-group response worksheets, and postsurvey results from this study begin to form a picture of what people view as important for nanofood governance and labeling more specifically. Future studies will be needed to further explore these results, as there were several limitations to this study including the small sample sizes for the postsurvey (n = 34) and focus groups (n = 56) in the context of applying inferential statistics, sample underrepresentation for some demographic variables, potential overrepresentation of extroverted opinions in focus group conversations, and intergroup moderator consistency (see also the “Study Limitations” section above). These limitations are often associated with focus group research.
The researchers also describe the various themes that emerged from the focus group discussions,
Labeling discussions activated numerous topics directly and indirectly related to nanofood product labeling. Skepticism and the influence of historical experiences were two themes that emerged in this study that have not been extensively covered in previous literature on public perception of nanotechnology. Participants were skeptical concerning actions, intentions, and promised outcomes, often without reference to particular organizations or their trust of them. In part, skepticism stemmed from historical experiences with other product domains like pesticides, nutritional and allergenicity labels, and prior food safety claims. Participants relied heavily on previous experiences related to nanofood labeling in order to form opinions on this new domain.
I encourage you to read the research yourself. As these things go, this study is quite readable. However, I do have one final nit to pick, household income. While the researchers used the data to develop their stratified, random sample, they don’t seem to have taken income into account when analyzing the results or considering problems in the methodology. It seems to me that household income might be a factor in how people feel about paying more for food labels that include nano information.
This is the second nanofood-themed post I’ve published recently, see my Oct. 23, 2013 posting for a report of a food and nano panel held at the Guardian’s (newspaper) offices in London, UK>