Young people have a limited understanding of foodborne microbes and underestimate the risks and consequences of illness, according to a study.

Researchers from the European Union’s project SafeConsume interviewed 156 people aged 11 to 18 in four countries about their food hygiene education, attitudes toward foodborne illness and existing food safety behaviors.

Students had good knowledge of personal hygiene such as handwashing but did not always follow hygiene rules because of forgetfulness and a lack of facilities. They were not clear about risks, causes or consequences of foodborne illness and perceived the home environment as the safest.

Addressing gaps in young people’s food safety knowledge is essential to improve their lack of concern towards foodborne illness and motivate them to follow food hygiene and safety behaviors consistently, according to the study published in the journal Education Sciences.

Data collection occurred in 2017 and 2018 in England, France, Hungary and Portugal. Students studying food, health or science subjects were selected to take part. A school national curriculum analysis was also done in Greece, Denmark and Spain.

Common topics in England, France, Hungary and Greece included food spoilage and contamination; microorganisms and enzymes; buying, storing and cooking food; personal hygiene; keeping work areas clean; and food storage and preparation.

Role of domestic settings
Focus groups and interviews found students were unclear about the risks, causes and consequences of microbial cross-contamination between foods, and lacked knowledge of foodborne microbes and the consequences of infection.

Pupils had gained basic cooking skills at home with the family environment having a major influence. This suggest that poor hygiene behaviors can be engrained because of generational transfer of skills, found the study.

They reported ways to check that food was safe to eat during cooking by looking at the color of chicken, checking that scrambled eggs were not runny in Hungary, and using a fork to verify that cakes had been cooked in the middle in England.

Those in France were less capable of handling meat safely. In Hungary, some were aware of food hygiene, whilst others believed they could cause illness from their cooking.

Participants thought the home was a safer environment to eat and cook while buffets, restaurants, school canteens, roadside vendors and takeaways were riskier for getting sick. French students had concerns about ecological issues, including pesticides and antibiotic use. Those in Hungary and Portugal believed foodborne illness was expected, and for some, an acceptable part of life.

Students in England and Portugal reported washing chicken, which is not advised, and French teenagers said they preferred the taste of meat cooked rare. Some were influenced by celebrity chefs, social media videos, and cooking programs.

Ensuring knowledge and behavior is practiced
Many students in England older than 14 had work experience in kitchens, including fast-food restaurants or cafes, or in family food businesses. They reported strictly following food hygiene rules at work but were less likely to do this outside of this role.

All students enjoyed learning about food hygiene using interactive activities, games, apps and videos. However, practical and interactive lessons will be difficult in schools that do not have educational kitchens for students, said researchers.

Reported barriers to learning about and maintaining good hygiene included lack of food topics in school teaching, unavailable or inadequate handwashing facilities in Portugal and France and internet restrictions in England. Most schools displayed food hygiene posters, especially for handwashing, but students said they did not always pay attention to them.

Respondents said they often forgot about personal hygiene and needed reminding of handwashing rules and to tie up hair before cooking. Teachers usually gave them warnings or examples of shocking images if they did not follow food hygiene rules.

Findings of the study have contributed to development of educational resources for students and educators on food hygiene and safety. Future steps include implementation across Europe, and an evaluation on the effect of learning on students’ knowledge and behavior around food hygiene.

The SafeConsume project, coordinated by Nofima and involving groups from 14 countries, ends later in 2022. A conference is set for June 27-28 in Bucharest, Romania.

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