Chinese consumers remain anxious about food fraud; study

People in China are anxious and distrustful of locally-produced food products in the wake of a series of fraud cases in recent years, says a new study.

Researchers from the University of Central Lancashire in the UK say incidents such as melamine in infant formula, repackaging of expired meat for sale in fast food outlets and recycling waste oil from drains and grease traps – so-called ‘gutter oil’ – have left consumers seeking self-protection strategies to mitigate their risk.

Through interviews with Chinese members of the public form urban and rural areas, the researchers found that there was an “overall sense of discontent” among those polled, which was “fuelled by food products being adulterated with illegal additives and excessive pesticide residues that cannot be easily detected or corrected by hygienic food handling strategies at home.”

Among the personal experiences reported by the respondents were oranges and melons that seemed to have been adulterated with dyes, supermarkets altering the expiry date of products, and unexpected reactions after consuming alcoholic drinks. One former hotel worker claimed refilling of empty liquor bottles was commonplace.

Among the trends noted was a tendency to prefer larger supermarket chains over smaller stores, and where possible – mainly among rural respondents – to shop purchase fresh produce directly from farmers and small self-growing vendors.

Meat and poultry products were often bought from supermarkets rather than open air markets, which were considered less trustworthy and hygienic.

Urban consumers were also more likely to source food products from online retailers like Jindong, COFCO and Timo, and there was mistrust of new brands or items being promoted.

Cooking at home where possible and avoiding street food were also common strategies. And most participants, especially rural consumers, said they rarely eat out and if they do so opt for “reputable” restaurants.

One consequence of the melamine scandal was the growth in the use of ‘daigous’ – individuals who shop on behalf of consumers and often buy goods from abroad – but the study suggests trust in these services is on the wane.

There have been reports of daigous “asking customers to return empty milk powder cans under the mask of recycling when in fact the packaging will be refilled with inferior milk powder,” say the researchers.

“The government and food industry should consider strengthening dissemination of information about safe food to rebuild consumers’ trust,” they conclude.The study is published in the journal Food Control.

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