Majority of Canadians concerned about food fraud

More than 40 per cent of Canadians believe they have bought counterfeit food at some point, according to a new study.

The study from Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Canada, is a market-based study on risk perception and explores the relationship between consumers' health-related predispositions (such as food allergies), socio-economic determinants (such as age and education), and their understanding of food fraud – mislabelling, adulterating and counterfeiting – and how these impact the level of awareness and trust in regards to fraudulent and counterfeited food products.

The study, which surveyed 1,088 Canadians, revealed that 42.7 per cent believed they had purchased a counterfeit food at some point, while 40 per cent said they had purchased a food that was labelled fraudulently, and 63 per cent said they were generally concerned about food fraud.

The most fraudulent food type that consumers experienced was seafood and fish (27.9 per cent), 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 bakery goods (9.3 per cent).

Fraudulent food items were found to be bought most often from a "regular" grocery store, cited by 65.9 per cent of those surveyed, followed by 12.2 per cent who said a non-traditional food retailer, 9.8 per cent mentioned a farmers' market and 2.4 per cent said a restaurant or food outlet.

The majority of participants (42.8 per cent) said they found out about their fraudulent food product through social media, with 35.7 per cent saying they did their own research, whereas 19.1 per cent said they found out through a public recall.

Dr Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University, said Canadians were becoming more aware of food fraud and there were growing concerns over the food they were eating, adding that the survey results on food fraud prevalence were "alarming".

"The fraudulent misrepresentation of food is a public health hazard, especially when it comes to allergies and food intolerances. Overall our study shows that there is strong evidence that food fraud is prevalent in the Canadian marketplace and that consumers are very aware of the issue."

Charlebois said the survey was also interested to see what determinants made consumers more aware of the risks of food fraud.

The study found that people with food allergies and older consumers were more concerned about food fraud, while consumers who dealt with food fraud first hand felt they could manage the risk better, instead of putting their faith in the food industry or government. However, those consumers who did no experience food fraud, felt that both industry and public regulators could be trusted to mitigate food risks.

Meanwhile, educated consumers appeared to have greater concerns about imported foods but overall those surveyed did not seem more concerned about imported products over domestic products.

Charlebois noted that the study showed the most vulnerable consumers were not aware of the problem and that there was a risk that if not properly addressed consumers could lose faith in regulators and the industry.

"If food fraud is not addressed and more consumers purchase fraudulent or counterfeit food products, public regulators and industry will not be recognised as offering legitimate risk-mitigating solutions to protect consumers," Charlebois said. "We need to look at way we can all be involved – government, the food industry, consumers, and researchers – to resolve this very complex issue."

There are around 40 complaints a year to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency about food misrepresentation, with substituted ingredients and false or misleading product claims making up the bulk of the complaints.

Last year, a husband and wife were found guilty of running an operation that produced millions of bottles of fake energy drinks, which had been distributed in Canada and the US. More than a million bottles had been consumed.

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