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Exploring the Public’s Perception of Food Fraud

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Read time: 6 minutes

When you go to the shops to buy the weekly groceries, it’s quite likely you’ll find yourself thinking about where your food has come from. Is this organic? Is that free-range? You are perhaps less likely to find yourself wondering, “Is this food fake?”

Food fraud occurs when products are knowingly diluted or substituted with another product, usually as a cost saving measure by the producer. Sometimes products are also mislabeled or misrepresented in order to justify charging a higher price for a lower-quality item [1]. This was the case in the famous 2013 horsemeat scandal in Britain, where burgers and ready meals were found to contain up to 60% horse despite being labelled as beef [2,3]. Similarly, in Italy’s 2015 olive oil scandal, where seven major olive oil brands were found to be intentionally mislabeling virgin olive oil as higher quality extra-virgin olive oil [4].

In the wake of these high-profile food scandals, consumers have grown understandably more wary as to where their food is coming from, but in reality there is very little a consumer can do to ensure their food is genuine. As food fraud is often purely economically motivated and not intended to cause harm, there is usually little-to-no health risk associated with consuming fraudulently labelled food [5]. From a practical perspective it can be very hard for a consumer to tell if food is fraudulent even after consumption; the average person likely cannot taste the difference between the likes of wild-caught or farmed fish, or free-range versus battery farmed chicken.

As a result, public trust in food distributors and sellers has become an important metric in the food and drink industry; low levels of trust may lead to boycotts which can severely impact the financial position of brands that have been affected by food fraud [6]. By studying the effect that different variables have on public trust, economic analysts and agricultural scientists are beginning to model the impact that food fraud incidents are having on the food and drink industry. They can consequently begin to recommend effective strategic responses that can be taken to address this fraud issue.

The international impact of food fraud reports

Coverage of major food fraud incidents by the international media has grown by nearly 80 percent in recent years [7] and plays an important part in controlling how food fraud is viewed in the minds of the public. In order to study further the role of the media, researchers from the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln developed an experiment [8] to gauge to what degree exposure to media coverage can change public opinion.

The experiment asked 107 members of the public to give price evaluations of two different bottles of extra-virgin olive oil from each of Italy, Greece, and the United States. One bottle would have an average retail price of $5-10, and the other a more premium price of $24-29. After giving their evaluations, participants were then invited to read a report about the Italian olive oil industry that discussed several real-world cases of food fraud regarding Italian extra-virgin olive oil. Participants were then asked to re-price the same six bottles of olive oil.

From analyzing the price data, researchers found that - perhaps unsurprisingly - exposure to media information regarding food fraud significantly affects the perceived value of the product in question. After reading the article detailing cases concerning the mislabeling of Italian olive oil, participants reduced their price evaluation of both Italian olive oil bottles by 51 percent on average. 

Interestingly, despite only being exposed to information concerning the Italian olive oil market, the participant evaluations of the Greek olive oil fell by 13 percent, and the American olive oil by 9 percent, indicating that negative perceptions of one country’s industry can spill over and affect even geographically distant markets. Participants also decreased their valuation of the more expensive premium bottles more than they did for the standard commercial value bottles of olive oil, indicating that luxury-brand or artisan brands might be hit more by food fraud scandals irrespective of the country the scandal occurred in. 

“The findings of our recent study indicate that the food fraud incidents are not limited to the product in question and may even affect consumers’ perceptions of the accuracy of labelling across countries,” said Syed Imran Ali Meerza, one of the study authors. “This highlights the importance of collaborative, international efforts to combat food fraud.”

The University Press Office notes [9] that Meerza has already been contacted by several olive oil producers who have asked for his expertise and advice as to how exactly they can counter this information. In addition to harnessing the clear power of media coverage, Meerza says that olive oil producers are now “looking at labelling or certification that will increase trust” on the basis of his research. By being more explicit about the quality testing or certification that their product may go through, producers can reassure their customers that they are being protected against food fraud.

Shifting attitudes towards domestic produce

In China, food safety is one of the largest public health and social issues affecting the country. In 2008 Chinese milk manufacturers caused a major food safety crisis by fraudulently selling milk mixed with melamine in order to mask the low-quality of the milk. This milk was then used in the production of powdered infant milk formula, which resulted in nearly 53,000 children being hospitalized [10] and at least 6 infant deaths [11] as a result of kidney problems or malnutrition due to the milk fraud. 

In response to the crisis, China introduced the “Food Safety Law of the People’s Republic of China” which unified thousands of previously stand-alone food safety laws that had been passed in China’s provinces to create a set of national food safety standards [12]. The law also introduced a centralized Food Safety Commission to oversee food safety in China. 

Despite these measures, the food and drink industry is still deeply mistrusted [13] by the Chinese public. A recent survey published in PLoS One [14] set out to examine these concerns and the general public’s attitude towards food safety. 

The survey, led by researchers at Newcastle University’s School of Natural and Environmental Sciences in conjunction with the Edinburgh Napier University Business School, found that in the face of heightened food safety concerns many Chinese consumers have developed their own personal risk relieving strategies in order to cope with food fraud incidents. These strategies include behaviors such as buying more imported international food or preferring packaging that has tamper-proof seals and prominently displayed origin or certification labels, even if those products are more expensive.

“When food fraud is widely reported it creates a “signal” that the food supply is unsafe for consumers and that regulatory standards are not being enforced,” explained Professor Lynn Frewer, lead author of the study.

“Food fraud incidents reduce trust in food regulators, the food industry, and other food chain actors in terms of their ability and motivation to protect consumers from food safety risks. In our study, Chinese consumers preferred European brands due to an association between those brands and specific authenticity cues, such as tamper-proof packaging, as a way of avoiding potential food fraud.

It is well-known between Chinese citizens that under the Food Safety Act [15], imported goods need to meet or exceed Chinese safety standards, provide quality certification, or pass a quality inspection before they can be imported into China. As a result, international exports are often seen as being less likely to be affected by food fraud in the eyes of the public.

If Chinese citizens were made equally aware of recent endeavors to improve domestic food quality [16], it could help to dispel some of the distrust seen in domestic products and possibly even aid in ending the reliance on risk relieving purchasing strategies.

The importance of analysis and accreditation

While both of these studies examine the nature of public reaction to food fraud incidents from different perspectives, it is clear that a greater commitment to transparency and increased awareness of food authentication techniques and relevant accreditations will go a significant way towards repairing public trust in the food and drink industry. By being more vocal about the quality control methods that are in place, food producers will come under increased pressure to improve those techniques and ensure that their testing meets industry best practices. 

One avenue that many food producers are looking at is the use of genetic testing [17] as a means of authenticating product composition and geographical origin. By building up a small library of DNA samples using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, it would be possible to quickly determine if a product has been adulterated with some sort of substitute or wholly mislabeled. 

In order to prevent food fraud and repair the general public’s relationship with the food and drink industry, it is imperative that the industry takes a proactive and collaborative approach. By introducing analytical methods like PCR, or simply by being more transparent about the methods that are currently being used in food authentication, food producers and food suppliers can prove to the general public that their products are what they claim to be. With the knowledge that early-detection mechanisms are in place, consumers will be free to shop with the confidence that their food is authentic and safe, and the assurance that their health and well-being is protected. 


[1] Victoria White. “Food Fraud: A Challenge for the Food and Drink Industry.” New Food Magazine, 3 Apr. 2017, https://www.newfoodmagazine.com/article/22854/food-fraud-an-emerging-risk-for-the-food-and-drink-industry/.

[2] Felicity Lawrence. “Horsemeat Scandal: Timeline.” The Guardian, 10 May 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/may/10/horsemeat-scandal-timeline-investigation.

[3] Julia Horton. “60% Horsemeat in Tesco Bolognese, Company Reveals.” The Scotsman, 11 Feb. 2013, https://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/60-horsemeat-in-tesco-bolognese-company-reveals-1-2785433.

[4] Nick Squires. “Italian Olive Oil Scandal: Seven Top Brands ‘Sold Fake Extra-Virgin.’” The Telegraph, 11 Nov. 2015, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/11988947/Italian-companies-investigated-for-passing-off-ordinary-olive-oil-as-extra-virgin.html.

[5] Karen Everstine PhD MPH, et al. The Implications of Food Fraud. 2013, https://www.foodqualityandsafety.com/article/the-implications-of-food-fraud/.

[6] Nick Fletcher. “Horse Meat Scandal Wipes £300m off Tesco’s Market Value.” The Guardian, 16 Jan. 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/business/marketforceslive/2013/jan/16/horse-meat-tesco-market-value-shares.

[7] Renee Johnson. Food Fraud and “Economically Motivated Adulteration” of Food and Food Ingredients. 2014, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43358.pdf.

[8] Syed Imran Ali Meerza, and Chris Gustafson. Consumer Response to Fraudulent Producer Behavior in the Agri-Food Marketing System. 2018, https://agecon.unl.edu/cornhusker-economics/2018/consumer-response-fraudulent-agri-food-producer-behavior.

[9] University Communications. “Study: Food Fraud Spoils Value for All.” Nebraska Today, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 27 June 2018, https://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/today/article/study-food-fraud-spoils-value-for-all/.

[10] “China’s Top Food Safety Official Resigns.” NBC News, 22 Sept. 2008, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/26827110/#.W73AgxNKjq0.

[11] John Vause. “Death Sentences in China Tainted Milk Case.” CNN World, 23 Jan. 2009, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/01/22/china.tainted.milk/.

[12] Winston & Strawn LLP. PRC Food Safety Law and Its Impacts on Chinese Food Industry. 2009, https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=ec5a0292-0922-4d65-8c2c-afbd29e74a1b.

[13] “Consumer Trust Levels Low in China.” WARC, 5 May 2011, https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/news/consumer_trust_levels_low_in_china/28242.

[14] Kendall, H., et al. “Food Fraud and the Perceived Integrity of European Food Imports into China.” PLOS ONE, edited by George-John Nychas, vol. 13, no. 5, Public Library of Science, May 2018, p. e0195817, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0195817.

[15] USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. China’s Food Safety Law. 2015, https://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent GAIN Publications/Amended Food Safety Law of China_Beijing_China - Peoples Republic of_5-18-2015.pdf

[16] Chinese Mission to the United Nations Office at Geneva. The Quality and Safety of Food in China. http://www.china-un.ch/eng/bjzl/t381573.htm. Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.

[17] Dr Neil Sharma. “Fighting Food Fraud: Testing without the Wait.” New Food Magazine, 16 May 2017, https://www.newfoodmagazine.com/article/41625/fighting-food-fraud-testing-without-wait/.