• Food fraud report shows 77% of consumers cannot spot fake goods
  • But businesses can win back customers if right steps are taken
  • Brand owners urged to work with relevant organisations to tackle problem

A new report focused on food fraud shines a light on the significant problem of fake branded products in the food and drink industry. While it revealed that few consumers have had personal experience with counterfeit food goods, three-quarters admitted they would not be able to identify such fake products. The problem is so bad that the head of the National Crime Unit told us “there is little” consumers can do to protect themselves from fake food and drink products.

The Food Fraud Report 2017 was released last week, and was put together by experts from insurance company NFU Mutual and a number of partnering organisations, including the British Retail Consortium, Food and Drink Federation, British Hospitality Association and National Farmers’ Retail & Markets Association (FARMA). The most relevant findings for those in the trademark space is the revelation that 4% of UK consumers have had experience with counterfeit food or drink goods. While relatively low in percentage terms, given the size of the market this will equate to a lot of impacted consumers. More worrying is the finding that 77% felt they would not be able to tell if a product was counterfeit – suggesting a significantly higher percentage of people could have purchased fake goods without realising it. Interestingly, consumer perception matches this notion, as 38% of respondents said they believe there is an issue regarding criminally counterfeit food products.

The statistics also place a figure on brand loyalty: 50% of those asked stated that they would lose trust in a brand they had never tried before and would not buy from it again if it was found to be selling fraudulent food; this number drops to 34% when applied to brands they love. Further, 32% would be swayed back to their favourite brand (compared to 19% for new brands) if it apologised, solved the issue and could demonstrate the problem would not be repeated. This shows that fake products can significantly damage a trademark owner’s image, but also that businesses can reclaim the trust of fans if the correct steps are carefully taken.

A key takeaway from the report is that more could be done from professional organisations to raise consumer awareness to deal with the problem. However, that may be just a small piece of the puzzle, says Andy Morling, head of the National Food Crime Unit of the Food Standards Agency. Talking to World Trademark Review, he said counterfeit food products are harder to detect than, for example, fake handbags or footwear: “Food crime depends on its ability to remain undetected; therefore, consumers are seldom able to discern whether the food they consume is criminally inauthentic. It is rare that one will be able to identify such products without conducting sophisticated scientific analysis. Realistically, there is little they can reasonably do to protect themselves from purchasing such food and drink.” However, when it comes to spotting fake brands, he added: “They can take action by avoiding informal retail channels and recognising when a deal is just too good to be true.”

Morling avers that more can be done from brand owners in the food industry: “Where suspicions are identified, I would call upon food businesses to report their suspicions to the National Food Crime Unit in confidence.  This single change in approach would make a significant long-term contribution to the interests of consumers and the legitimate industry alike. We would also like to see more action from businesses across the supply chain to explain to consumers all the steps that are taken to assure them that food can be trusted. Sadly, fraud can and does take place in the food supply chain. Everyone involved has to play their part in tackling this. We need businesses to be more forthcoming when they have concerns or evidence that things aren't right. Increasing the flow of intelligence is vital to help us pursue and bring to justice fraudulent food businesses, and to build consumer confidence in food.”

Indeed, the NFU Mutual report likewise urges brand owners to be proactive: “Businesses are encouraged to get an understanding of how their own company is perceived [when it comes to food fraud] in order to gauge how its customers feel, find out what more could be done to boost confidence and to act upon it. They should be aware that levels of trust are also affected by the types of outlet that serve the food, or even the type of food itself. Age is also a huge factor of trust, as well as geographical location – so know your customer base and adapt to it.”

Of course, this new report is one small part in a global picture. We recently covered the EUIPO’s study on counterfeit trade routes, which revealed that China, India, Ethiopia and Kenya are significant producers of fake foodstuffs. So for rights holders in that industry, it’s about tackling inauthentic products before they hit the market – but giving customers the knowledge to lessen their risk to be exposed to these goods, and report them if discovered, could be a helpful tool in the fight against fakes.