Researchers have looked at food safety actions in kitchens and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kitchen Life 2 is a social research project commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on behaviors in kitchens. The pilot study was completed in July 2021 with 22 households and 14 food businesses being filmed and analyzed. Further work is scheduled to take place in summer and potentially autumn this year.

The aim is to identify key behaviors relating to food safety in domestic and business kitchens, as well as the factors that may reduce the likelihood to follow recommended food safety and hygiene advice.

A literature review of materials from 2013 to 2021 was done to help develop behavioral interventions or risk assessment models. Seven expert interviews were also conducted to understand the impact of COVID-19 on food hygiene behaviors.

The review covers risk perception, trust in institutions and the supply chain and kitchen behaviors at households and businesses. This includes cross-contamination; cleaning, cooking, chilling and defrosting behaviors, and adherence to use-by dates.

COVID impact
Findings suggest there was an increase in handwashing in domestic and business kitchens, cleaning frequency of business kitchens, and washing of fruits and vegetables in domestic kitchens because of the pandemic. However, researchers warned that observational studies were needed to see whether reported behavior actually translates in real life.

Cooking more from scratch in domestic kitchens and storing more food as frozen in business kitchens may have food safety implications such as defrosting methods, cross-contamination and cooking food at the right temperature and for long enough.

Previous studies found people often eat food past its use-by date. In particular, they reported having out of date cheese, bagged salad, cooked meat, milk and smoked fish. Those having cut or skipped meals for financial reasons were also more likely to eat food past its use-by date. This rise in eating food past its use-by date is concerning and needs to be studied further, said researchers.

One person interviewed said good practice in hospitality industry kitchens started because of the pandemic has continued, and handwashing and kitchen hygiene practices have improved, including an increased frequency of cleaning. One change was asking employees not to use gloves and to enhance handwashing practices to prevent cross-contamination.

Another person said changing consumer behavior in the kitchen is challenging because food safety is not a primary concern for people who believe their actions do not cause ill health.

Tracking trends during the pandemic
The amount of people eating certain foods past the use-by date significantly increased during the pandemic, according to other research in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The COVID-19 consumer tracker, commissioned by the FSA, ran from April 2020 to October 2021 and has since been replaced by a consumer insights tracker. It looked at food insecurity, food safety behavior and food concerns.

From July 2020 to October 2021, the proportion of people who ate foods past the use-by date went up for cheese from 40 to 50 percent, bagged salads from 37 to 47 percent, milk from 27 to 43 percent, cooked meat from 29 to 42 percent and smoked fish from 16 to 24 percent.

Overall, one in two respondents who cook reported using different chopping boards for different foods “always” or “most of the time.” On average, three in 10 who cook washed raw chicken “always” or “most of the time” across the tracker. Food safety experts say washing poultry is not a good practice because it easily spreads pathogens around the kitchen. Seven in 10 respondents reported following storage instructions on packaging once food is opened “always” or “most of the time.”

Concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain were highest in January 2021, but dropped to 36 percent in October 2021. The impact of Brexit on food imports and exports declined from January to October 2021.

Concerns around food hygiene when eating out or buying takeaways increased from 38 percent in January 2021 to 46 percent in October 2021.

In December 2020, 26 percent of respondents reported being highly or somewhat concerned about the quality of food produced in the United Kingdom, this rose to 34 percent at the end of the tracker in October 2021. More than half of those surveyed said they were highly or somewhat concerned about the quality of imported food in October 2021.

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