A majority of Canadian consumers are concerned that the foods they eat may be counterfeit, a new study by Dalhousie University says.
“The most popular one in Canada is misrepresentation,” said Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University and Canada’s leading expert on food distribution, safety and security.
“If you’re selling an organic product, and it isn’t, or you’re selling a product that is local, and it’s not; those are the kind of food fraud cases we’re seeing,” Charlebois said.
Broadly speaking, food fraud includes the mislabelling of foods with regard to content, quality or origin. For instance, where salmon is sold by a retailer as wild, when it’s actually farmed; or if processed food is marked gluten free, when in fact it contains ingredients that would harm someone with celiac disease.
In a new report titled “food fraud and risk perception”, Dalhousie researchers surveyed 1,088 Canadians over a three-week period in January. They asked respondents in English or French a range of questions about the food they eat and whether they’re concerned about it.
Among the key findings:
—respondents with a declared health condition, including allergies and intolerances, were more likely to be concerned about counterfeited food products coming from within Canada;
— older consumers were more likely to be concerned about food fraud in general;
—more educated consumers were concerned about the risks associated with imported food products.
Researchers found 63 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed when asked if they’re concerned that food products in Canada are being misrepresented.
When asked about food from overseas sources, 74 per cent of respondents showed significant concern that the food they were buying might not meet expectations.
Finding food fraud is one thing — holding companies accountable is another.
“The biggest challenge when it comes to food fraud is to prove criminal intent,” said Charlebois, who said successful prosecutions are not frequent.
“You could actually surveil the entire system but to actually catch people in the act is very difficult to do,” Charlebois said.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates food safety. In its survey, Dalhousie researchers found more than 56 per cent of respondents consider government regulators to be the most competent when it comes to protecting consumers from counterfeited or adulterated food products.
“It is clear that people do expect public regulators to fix the problem when it comes to food fraud,” Charlebois told Global News.
Only 27 per cent of respondents said the food industry should be trusted to protect consumers.
“They are least likely to trust industry which is problematic, because if the industry doesn’t have the trust of consumers it becomes very challenging for them to grow their business,” said Charlebois.
So how can a consumer protect against being misinformed or defrauded?
Charlebois urges food shoppers to do their research and seek out consistent, reliable food providers and to know their prices. He warns people to be skeptical of fluctuating prices on food commodities—suggesting deep-discounts on food items, such as fis or meat, may not be such a good “deal” after all, but could reflect inferior foods being sold instead.
“The consumer, in the end, is the most effective police for the entire food system.”