Researchers have provided evidence of changes in consumers’ food-related behavior during COVID-19 restrictions in Ireland.

The study, based on an online survey of 651 adults and published in the Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research, showed how the first pandemic lockdown in early to mid-2020 forced people to change their shopping and cooking habits.

It examines food planning, shopping, preparation and eating behavior, including stockpiling and influences on decision-making.

COVID-19 had a positive impact on demand for well-recognized brands. Companies such as Nestlé, Kraft and Heinz reported a very strong 2020 sales performance, particularly in the first quarter.

While some of this may be due to stockpiling behaviors, consumer feelings of anxiety and food safety concerns may have resulted in a move by some toward well-established brands. Trust and confidence associated with such brands may have offered reassurance, said researchers.

The top three foods most likely to have been stockpiled in Ireland were pasta/rice, eggs and flour, reflecting the desire to bake and cook during the pandemic. Using leftovers and not throwing away foods increased during lockdown, according to the study.

A shift to working from home, being furloughed or losing one’s job, closure of restaurants and other foodservice outlets, queueing to get into retail outlets, reduced brand options and the need to behave differently while at retailers all impacted food-related decisions.

Longevity of behavior change
Respondents indicated that good hygiene standards and safety norms were the most important aspects of shopping, significantly increasing in importance since lockdown.

The question remains whether new behaviors will continue or whether people will revert to pre-lockdown behaviors when the pandemic ends and they have less time at home.

Professor Maeve Henchion, a researcher at Teagasc and a study author, said some of the changes seen during the COVID-19 pandemic are probably here to stay.

“From a public health perspective, this could be a teachable moment. Food safety, good hygiene and a focus on hygiene in the supermarket are going to continue to be important. People have become really conscious of things like clean shopping trolleys and such like.”

The online survey was done in 38 countries between April and June 2020 with coordination by the University of Antwerp. It found that people fell into one of two categories: COVID copers and restless restrictors.

Restless restrictors had larger changes in attitudes toward shopping than the COVID copers, viewing it more negatively during the lockdown than before.

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