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Food safety remains hot topic in China

By Ankush Chibber , 11-Sep-2012

In the wake of China’s recent spate of food safety scandals, a major new survey has found that its consumers are increasingly worrying about what they eat.

The study, conducted by Ipsos with CBN Group and CBN Research Institute this summer and focused on consumers between 18 and 50 across seven major cities, found that food safety events have had a major impact on buying choices. 

“In all, 62% of respondents indicated that they would change their purchase decisions due to food safety events, and more than 70% said that they would decline any other product of an affected brand,” it reported.

This might be seen as a boon for multinational corporations, with the survey revealing that 60% of consumers would choose imports following a food safety event. This indicates that reliability does not figure high in the perception of Chinese consumers towards domestic food companies.

Consumers still skeptical of food safety environment

Consumers between 31 and 50 with a high monthly income of 12,000 yuan and above are most concerned about food safety issues.

More than 80% of respondents said that they hoped for greater transparency and stricter law enforcement. Over 70% called for spot checks, with the publication of test results.

Consumer awareness of major food safety incidents, especially those related to clenbuterol, infant milk powder, melamine, trench oil and stained bread, were as high as 94%, 92%, 85% and 80% respectively.

Consumer is aware, but not fully

“Though consumer food safety knowledge has increased, the understanding is not comprehensive enough. The public overall cognitive level is not high,” the report stated.

However, consumers are increasingly turning to alternative sources of information, and not solely relying on the government or the companies. 

This is indicated in how the credibility of food safety experts and third-party institutes has reached a record high. “Around 83% of respondents expressed an interest to participate in activities carried out by these experts,” it said.

It also warned that, given how food safety awareness is still not comprehensive, negative reports from one brand might lead to a decline in the perception of the entire industry.

“In the event of food safety problems, respondents agreed to the immediate decline in the reliability of the brand and similar brands. This shows that the influence of the media and the need for communication,” Ipsos said.

So what should food companies do?

Zhou Wenjun, vice-president for Ipsos in Greater China, told FoodNavigator-Asia that enterprises should heed consumer insights and pay attention to the opinions of food safety experts and the authorities.

“They must handle the communication of food safety events via the media and public relations, creating a scientific, standardised and transparent operation with timely disclosure of information,” he said.

“They must focus on pre-empting the event of a food safety incident; avoidance is not a wise choice, but businesses should strive for explanations to the public in the shortest time. This is a responsible attitude,” he added.

Tsai Tsui, Ipos China’s research director, said a more mature set of mechanisms has been formed in Europe and the US to deal with food safety problems.

“At this point, China is still in its infancy. The establishment of a neutral third party specifically to provide consumers with information on the enterprises in the production process can also play a role,” he remarked.

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