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Consumer Attitudes To Food Misdescription
Project Code: Q02047
- Qualitative research was commissioned to explore and evaluate authenticity issues in depth, providing greater insight into consumer understanding and concerns; effectively ascertaining the extent of the problem from the consumer perspective
- Interviews were undertaken with GB consumers (men and women aged 18-70, BC1C2DE social classes) including ethnic minorities (Afro-Caribbean, South Asian Muslim and Hindu). Fieldwork took place in May and June 2003, in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Newcastle.
- While levels of concern around misdescription issues varied between individuals, all consumers interviewed felt the need for some protection against misdescription through its very nature of being largely ‘undetectable’. Importantly, respondents also agreed on the relative order and importance of different misdescription issues.
- Misdescription as a specific issue itself arose spontaneously for a minority only. These respondents had found themselves subject to misdescription at some time, through their ‘minority needs’ (religious, vegetarianism etc). Their attention had been drawn to the misdescription by the media or specific interest groups ‘policing’ on their behalf. Issues spontaneously identified included the following:
- - undeclared meat (vegetarians and religious minorities)
- - misleading labelling re healthy / low fat ranges
- - use of low quality (not ‘real’) meat
- - non declaration of products linked to cancer
- - sold unfit goods (gone off before sell by date)
- - awareness of extending meat using water
- For the majority of respondents, misdescription was considered to be an important aspect of broader issues around food – such as safety or perceived value/benefit (financial and emotional).
- Dealing with misdescription was seen to be a means of dealing with these broader issues, as ensuring accurate description empowered those who were concerned to take control and exercise choice.
- It was apparent from this sample that information on labels and packs was used as a critical indicator of what people understand they are buying (at point of purchase or during use), with many respondents looking for stamps of authority and descriptors to make choices around issues that are important to them. Within this, there was a preference for as much ‘shorthand’ as possible for key information and a need for sufficient media coverage to drive the issue home and encourage word of mouth as the other most powerful source of information.
- In terms of establishing the relative concern of different misdescription issues, four causes of concern were identified – each of which were sufficient in the view of consumers to consider addressing the issue. Two causes were identified as primary (Health/Safety issues and Compromising Ethics) and two as secondary (Financial Cheating and Emotional Cheating). While ‘financial cheating’ was about being ‘out of pocket’ or ripped off, ‘emotional cheating’ was regarded as being duped or misled in terms of the perceived benefit or quality of a product (so the experience of consuming it becomes a sham), e.g. believing you are buying a premium product but being given something ordinary or even substandard, believing you a buying a product with ‘health’ benefits that will have no impact on your health, etc
- In the arena of food issues (and by implication misdescription) health and safety issues tended to dominate, simply because of the relative impact of their threat (illness or death). Ethical concerns, while important by virtue of their importance in life, were also important but considered by many to be catered for to a large degree (evidence via existing assurance schemes,etc). Emotional concerns were an area that consumers liked to keep unclear, as it allowed them to make trade offs and justify less ‘good’ or ‘correct’ choices they made.
- Financial cheating, however, was a relatively new idea and one that respondents felt they needed assistance to address. Indeed, the power of manufacturers in this area was considered ‘untouchable’ without help from a higher body and thus offered an area where consumers could see a real benefit in tackling and educating re misdescription.
- On the whole, respondents dismissed the area of restaurants, cafes and take-aways as one where revised description was less important or unrealistic. Their mindset in this area of consumption was not attuned to processing this type of information, which in itself, was perceived to undermine the experience they are seeking - irrespective of the value of the meal or takeaway. This doesn’t mean to say they were any less concerned about food issues but they expected them to be dealt with by ‘relevant’ bodies and not take responsibility themselves. Significant anxiety over potential misdescription concerns simply led respondents to avoid outlets of high perceived risk.
- Awareness ofFSA was still low amongst this sample and little was known as regards the FSA’s actual remit with respect to food issues and misdescription. ‘Shop floor policing’ (the most common consumer benchmark for ‘regulating’ food issues) was mostly attributed to Local Authority Trading Standards or Environmental Health Departments. Some effort is therefore still required to raise the profile of FSA in relation to both food issues and misdescription if consumers are to understand their role in preventing misdescription and wider food issues and credit FSA for their activity.
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