Chinese Consumers Are Skeptical Of Animal-Origin Food
Animal advocates have long stressed the need for transparency into China’s food animal production practices. In response to recent crises involving food safety, the Chinese government has launched an extensive food certification program labeling foods under three primary certifications: “hazard-free food” (related to human health and safety), “green food” (related to food grown in environmentally-friendly ways), and “organic food” (a strict certification requiring environmentally-friendly methods and no GMOs). In addition to these three certifications, food products sold in China require a “Sheng Chan” (SC) label that indicates the mode of manufacture, and that the item has been approved as safe by the government.
The trust Chinese consumers have in the food certification system varies by region, although research has found that around 50% of consumers have little to no confidence. When making food purchases, health concerns typically outweigh others (like environmental concerns) for Chinese consumers. Previous efforts to understand consumer awareness of food certificates and preference for food safety attributes have shown mixed results, and there is a need to understand how Chinese consumers use food labels in their purchasing decisions. In turn, this information can inform food safety policy and animal advocacy efforts in the region.
In this study, researchers explored the influence that food certifications have on consumer trust in food safety and their willingness to pay for different products. They collected 757 survey responses from people living in both urban and rural areas of China. The questionnaire asked participants about their eating habits, their safety and quality perceptions of different kinds of food and certification schemes, and their willingness to pay for different products (fish, meat, milk, eggs, and rice) based on these assessments. The researchers controlled for several variables including age, sex, education level, traceability, and knowledge of the different food certifications.
Results of the study showed that overall, consumers in China rely on price more than certifications to make food safety choices. In fact, many consumers were unaware of the hazard-free, green, and organic certification schemes. Participants were especially disinterested in food certifications on animal products, illustrating a greater mistrust in food of animal origin. The authors predicted this outcome due to China’s history of food safety incidents for animal products, especially within the dairy industry.
The opposite was found for rice, for which food certification logos consistently indicated perceptions of food safety. The SC label that the government assigns to all food products had the greatest positive impact on food safety perception, which, according to the authors of the study, points to a growing need for the government to oversee and bring transparency to certification systems and food production in general.
A slightly different trend was found among more educated participants. When judging whether a food item was safe, these consumers tended to be less influenced by price and by organic labeling schemes than other respondents.
This study suggests that consumers desire increased transparency into animal products, especially how they relate to food safety. The authors suggest that the Chinese government should use this opportunity to review its food certification policies and identify solutions to make consumers more trusting. Animal advocacy within food systems starts with transparency into farming and production practices, and this means there is an opportunity for animal advocates to point out the safety hazards of conventional factory farming. Given the skepticism that Chinese consumers display toward labeling schemes, now is the time to link factory farming to food safety and push for actionable policy changes that will benefit both animals and consumers.