By: Stephen Hughes, UK Managing Director

The horse meat scandal that hit the EU recently is an uncomfortable reminder to us all that there are still plenty of unscrupulous organisations and individuals prepared to lie, deceive and do just about anything to maximise profits at the expense of the consumer.

You don’t need me to remind you that the scandal involved unethical food suppliers taking advantage of long, and often fairly complex supply chains to pass off cheaper horse meat as beef and other meat products whilst charging the higher price. Further investigation showed the extent of the deception and quite disturbingly, in some instances, pork was sold as halal meat.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with horse meat and it’s perfectly safe for human consumption, and indeed it is enjoyed in many countries in the EU. However, what caused the outcry was the extent of deception and the fact that people were being charged for a perceived inferior product (of course many of us animal loving Brits find the idea of eating a horse akin to eating a dog or other domestic animals).

The scandal also brought to light significant failures in the food-testing abilities of the government and the shops that sold the meat, which ultimately led to a massive loss of confidence and trust in those retailers who many perceived as acting too late. In fact, you could say public perception was that they were closing the stable door after the horse had bolted (pun definitely intended).

Why did this happen?

There will always be greedy and unethical people whatever the industry, but to my mind, the main factor was the continuing price pressures faced by suppliers combined with less than rigorous quality checks. In fact, recent news stories suggest the same level of deception is present in other industries (toxic mortgages, Libor rate rigging, mis-sold energy tariffs, etc) suggesting these practices may well be widespread.

So, we in the research industry can sit back, fold our arms and think, “That could never happen in research.” Think again. The bad news is that the equivalent of this is happening in our industry right now.

You may not be aware of it but the provision of online sample is frighteningly similar to the food supply chain. Both can be complex and in the case of sample, there is rarely any transparency on where the sample has come from, and what or how many other suppliers are contributing to providing the sample for your project. A failure in any of the links in the supply chain mean that the project is undelivered and you stand to lose a client.

This is bad enough, but recent developments have almost exactly mirrored the horse meat scandal and that is river sample being passed off and sold as double opted-in panel sample. Like the horse meat scandal, it is more widespread among less-than-ethical sample providers.

Let me stress though that like horse meat there is absolutely nothing wrong with river sample (intercepting people online to answer a survey) and it can be very useful to use for some sample requirements. However, river sample is significantly cheaper to deliver than panel sample – mainly because you never really know who is answering the survey and the incentive amounts are much lower. So, if you are buying river sample, you should be paying much less than panel sample. But what we are actually seeing is researchers getting river sample and being charged panel prices.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? If we take the horse meat analogy further, research agencies can be thought of as the retailer in this scenario and we only need to see the damage done to the reputation of Tesco and Iceland here in the UK to understand how detrimental this could potentially be to agencies.

To avoid any issues it is therefore crucial for researchers to make themselves more aware of where their sample comes from. Transparency of sample source is the key and whenever buying sample, you should always insist suppliers confirm in writing that the sample they are providing is from a double-opted in panel.

It’s your reputation on the line.

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