In 2013, Europe was confronted with a shocking food revelation. Food safety authorities unveiled that a number of popular products labeled “100% beef” actually contained significant amounts of horse and pig meat. While food fraud is hardly a new issue, this incident attracted global attention and caused consumers to reconsider their trust in the food industry.
To address growing speculation about food authenticity, Consumentenbond (a Dutch consumers’ association) conducted a study examining consumer attitudes around food fraud. The Consumer Trust and Food Integrity report was released this month in their magazine. The study was conducted in the Netherlands, but findings indicate the prevalence of food fraud throughout our transnational food system and illustrate a global concern around food safety and authenticity.
When looking at consumers’ knowledge of food fraud, the study found that two-thirds of consumers “worry about food fraud.” Consumers reported an overall skepticism of product labels and indicated that authorities could be doing more to prevent adulteration and mislabeling. Consumers were asked which foods they think have the highest prevalence of food fraud. Meat and chicken were ranked most susceptible, with consumers reporting possible fraud at 51 percent. Ready meals and (shell)fish were presumed to be the second and third most commonly misrepresented food items, at 44 percent and 38 percent respectively.
The survey also took a look at consumers’ trust in food retailers. Consumers were asked whether they thought products from specific suppliers have higher instances of food fraud. Products sold in organic supermarkets were suspected to have the highest rates of food fraud (33 percent.) Products sold at general grocery stores were interestingly suspected to have low rates of food fraud, at less than 10 percent.
The report shows some inconsistencies between consumer expectations and the realities of food fraud. Consumers are correct in their suspicions about meat and chicken, but should be more aware of fraud occurring in milk products, dried herbs, and honey.
According to the full authenticity test, out of 156 products, 33 products (21 percent) showed deviations. Researchers presume this percentage would be even higher if a larger sample size were tested. Confidence in industry and regulatory agencies is shrinking as consumers become more aware of the prevalence of food fraud. Currently, food labels provide enough information for consumers to determine food authenticity. Improving traceability will require an increase in regulatory food checks and more precise labeling. Consumentenbond and the National Consumers League (NCL) call on industry and regulatory agencies to strengthen food inspection throughout the supply chain and to work towards a more transparent food system to regain consumer trust.
The American Food Protection and Defense Institute recommends that consumers take the following steps to avoid food fraud:
- Buy from reputable brands and sources
- Read the labels on the food products you buy
- Be skeptical of prices that appear “too good to be true”
- When possible, buy products from short, visible supply chains
- Buy minimally processed foods with few ingredients