Risks from undercooked chicken and unpasteurized cheese are of low concern to the public, according to a survey for Food Standards Scotland (FSS).

To help consumers in Scotland be aware of foodborne risks and how to control them, FSS needs to understand and measure the level of public knowledge, concern and awareness of such risks.

Results from the Food in Scotland consumer tracking survey show about three quarters of people are concerned about food poisoning but a significant proportion do not follow good food hygiene practices.

A project was conducted to gain knowledge, perception of risk and level of concern about issues related to food safety to help the agency identify if known risks and consumers views of a food risk are the same, or where they differ. Findings would help FSS identify where further work needs to be done through developing new guidance or refining existing advice.

Food safety risks put to participants
Research by Kantar TNS involved 18 interviews in November 2017 with people aged up to 30 with no kids, aged 25 to 50 with children at home and aged over 50 with no children at home. Each person documented their food safety behaviors in a diary one week prior to the research beginning. Participants were invited to attend a group session to discuss the research.

Four food safety risks were put to them: undercooked meat/burgers, undercooked chicken, unpasteurized cheese and chemical contaminants.

“The risks of undercooked chicken and unpasteurized cheese can be serious but are perceived as of low concern because people either see themselves as in control (undercooked chicken) or it is not relevant to them (unpasteurized cheese),” according to survey results.

Undercooked chicken was high on consumers’ radar in regard to food risk and safety behaviors. For most chicken was seen as low risk or concern as they felt in control. It appeared consumers were adopting several behaviors to mitigate risk and were aware of the need to do so.

Although there was good understanding of how to handle chicken safely there was limited grasp of why it should be done. For example, there was very low awareness of Campylobacter across the sample with most associating chicken with Salmonella and E. coli poisoning.

A minority were still washing chicken due to habit and belief it washed off dirt, because it was a behavior learned from a parent or they had not got sick so thought they were following safe methods. Basic food hygiene appeared to be ingrained for most and did not require much consideration.

Food safety behaviors included using different chopping boards for meat compared to vegetables and fruit, cleaning these boards after preparing meat, cleaning utensils during food preparation or using designated knives for raw meat preparation.

Participants seemed to relate raw chicken meat as likely to make you unwell and this dominated risk mitigation behavior. Some consumers relied on look, feel, following cooking instructions to check food was cooked but none used a meat thermometer at home.

Attitudes towards food risk were learned from family or parental influence over a number of years. Experience was also gained through trial and error, so as cooking competence increases exposure to risk decreases.

Unpasteurized cheese and pink burger risk
There was no particular desire of survey respondents to eat unpasteurized cheese in the future but there was also a feeling that other consumers can and should be allowed to eat it if they wanted. Due to unfamiliarity with the product, consumers struggled to perceive any risk for themselves.

Labelling unpasteurized cheese as a “raw milk” product was thought to be confusing as it added another description. However, the term “raw” was off-putting and unappealing language associated with a potential food hazard so most were even less likely to try this.

There was some awareness of the trend to serve pink burgers but experiences varied. Risks of eating undercooked burgers were not well known and there was potential for confusion with rare beef or steak.

Those who ate undercooked, pink burgers tended to be younger customers and did so for the better taste, a preference for pink steaks so choosing the same for burgers and it is how burgers are served in “good” restaurants. Others, who tended to be older people, would never eat a pink burger saying  they know ground meat should never be pink, or do not like pink meat generally.

Information was provided to participants on risks of eating rare burgers. Those that ate pink burgers claimed they would be less likely to in the future as they were worried by the risk. The message of ‘it is possible to produce pink burgers safely’ was not understood by the survey group.

Chemical contamination did matter at a broad level.  However, consumers had very little idea of what they could do to impact or mitigate this as knowledge or understanding of the risk was insufficient. The main associations with chemical contaminants were pesticides, packaging and burnt meat. They were perceived as an area for experts more than consumers.

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