Is that chicken really organic? Were those tomatoes really grown in Canada?
The labels may say so, but as a new Dalhousie-led study on food fraud released Tuesday shows, Canadian consumers are growing increasingly concerned about whether they are really getting what they paid for.
Sixty-three per cent of Canadians surveyed in the study said they are generally concerned about food fraud — the practice of mislabelling, adulterating or counterfeiting food products.
Getting what you pay for
Food fraud has many potential consequences. It can pose a public health hazard, particularly in cases where people with allergies or food intolerances are misled by a label. And it also presents a challenge to the food industry itself.
“Food fraud is not a victimless crime,” says Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the Faculty of Management and the lead author on the study. “The entire food economy depends on consumer trust. Once lost, it becomes much more challenging to grow the sector and define a value proposition.”
Dr. Charlebois (left) worked with colleagues from Dal and the University of Guelph on the study, which examines the relationship between consumers’ education, age, income, gender, health-related predisposition and geographical region and their risk perception of food fraud in general through a survey of 1,088 Canadians.
The researchers found that older, more educated consumers and those with food allergies were more likely to be more concerned about food fraud. And those who experienced food fraud first hand suggested they are far more likely to trust themselves and other consumers to manage the risks than they are to turn to government or industry.
“Consumers seem to trust themselves more than industry to address food fraud, which is interesting,” says Dr. Charlebois.
Those who had not experienced food fraud, however, suggested that industry and regulators could help mitigate risks.
Many Canadians affected
The study — titled Food fraud and risk perception: Awareness in Canada and projected trust on risk mitigating agents — also turned up strong evidence that food fraud is prevalent in the Canadian marketplace. Of those surveyed, 42.7 per cent believe they have bought a counterfeit food product at some point. Seafood and fish (27.9 per cent) was the top-selected category where fraud was experienced, followed by liquids such as oils and wines (20.9 per cent), fruits and vegetables (13.9 per cent), deli meats (11.6 per cent) and baked goods (9.3 per cent).
“The fact that more than 40 per cent of Canadians believe they have bought a counterfeit food product is alarming,” says Dr. Charlebois
When study participants were asked to identify where they purchased a fraudulent food item, 65.9 per cent said at a “regular” grocery store, 12.2 per cent at a non-traditional food retailer, 9.8 per cent at a farmers’ market and 2.4 per cent at a restaurant or food outlet. A plurality (42.8 per cent) said they found out about their fraudulent food product through social media, with personal research (35 per cent) and public recall (19.1 per cent) being the source of the others’ discoveries.
Need for a comprehensive approach
The study shows that the most vulnerable consumers are not aware of the problem. With evidence that the practice is commonplace, there is a risk that if it is not addressed that more consumers could be victims and lose faith in regulators and the industry.
With social and personal networks then perceived as more valuable for consumers, the authors suggest a more effective way to mitigate risk from food fraud may be to educate the network of supporters. But the authors also suggest that tackling such a complex issue requires a comprehensive approach to protecting consumers from food fraud — one that includes government, the food industry, consumers and researchers.
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