Food fraud can be defined as “the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.” Source: Michigan State University
In late 2019, IFIC sought to better understand consumer perceptions related to food fraud using the definition above.
With a series of recent high-profile incidents of contamination including pet food and peanut products in the U.S. and infant formula in China, we wanted to assess consumers’ reactions to what they know and understand about food fraud in the marketplace.
Consumers are not familiar with the terminology used to describe food fraud
Nearly half (48%) of consumers had not heard of any of the provided terms used to describe food fraud. “Food fraud,” “food authenticity,” “counterfeit food,” and “economically motivated adulterants” (EMAs) were all given as options in this survey. Fewer than one in ten consumers (9%) had heard of all these terms.
While consumers may not be familiar with food fraud terminology, they can often recall hearing about a specific case of food fraud in the news. When given a list of recent incidents, the most recognized included contaminated pet food (39% had heard about this), Salmonella in peanut butter (30%) and infant formula contamination in China (25%). One in ten had heard of all the incidents, while 28% had never seen or heard of any of the incidents in the news.
Consumers are split on whether they’ve heard of food fraud in the U.S.
Survey participants were provided the MSU definition of food fraud and, after reviewing the definition, were asked if they’d ever heard of food fraud happening in the U.S. Survey takers were evenly split in their responses: 42% had heard about it happening, while 42% had not heard about it before. Another 16% said they did not know.
The lack of familiarity with food fraud aligns with the low level of concern participants expressed about the issue when shopping for food and beverages. Nearly half (42%) said they don’t think about food fraud when shopping for food, while about one-third (30%) said they think about it sometimes. Less than one-fifth (18%) said they think about it often.
Consumers believe the food industry plays a protective role, but also remain unsure of what to do if food fraud occurs
More than half of consumers at least somewhat (59%) agreed that the food industry works to protect them from food fraud. At the same time, if confronted with the knowledge that a product they purchased was subject to food fraud, consumers provided a variety of responses for what they’d do about it. While several indicated they would seek out additional information (36%) or throw the product away (36%), nearly one in ten would keep the product and eat it, while the remaining 19% were not sure. These responses offer a clear indication that consumer information about what to do in the event of food fraud is necessary to maintain consumer confidence and trust.
Public perceptions of risk align with reality
When provided the list of foods and food products that have been cited for food fraud incidents, consumers in our survey chose meat and meat products as having the highest risk for food fraud (35%), followed by fish and seafood (30%) and fats and oils (23%). The perception that meat and meat products are at high risk for food fraud could be linked to the fact that 20% of consumers in our survey recalled hearing or reading something about the U.K. horse meat scandal in the news.
To assess public perception towards the types of food subject to food fraud, we found that nearly one-third (30%) of respondents agreed with the following statement: “packaged foods are more likely subject to food fraud compared to unpackaged, fresh food,” while 16% agreed with the statement “packaged foods are less likely subject to food fraud compared to unpackaged, fresh foods.” Nearly three in ten (29%) believed that “whether or not a food is packaged has no impact on it being subject to food fraud,” while a remaining quarter (24%) stated that they don’t know.
Trusted sources of information
Consumers seem to have a unique sense of trust that brands and retailers will protect them from food fraud. When asked about shopping behaviors, more than half (54%) said “choosing brands you trust” would reduce the risk of food fraud, while an additional 40% believed “shopping at trusted retailers” would do so.
Finally, when asked about using the internet to learn more about food fraud, consumers cited the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) website and other government websites (53%) and food safety websites (42%) as the most trustworthy. Leveraging the credibility of the FDA and other government agencies, as well as food safety websites, will be critical to delivering important information about food fraud to the consumer.