World Universities Network researchers have investigated the food safety risk of online food delivery platforms against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic in Taiwan

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a dramatic increase in demand for online food delivery services for everything, from groceries to cooked meals around the world, including in the United States. The food safety risk of so much food being delivered this way has gone largely unexplored.

Researchers in Taiwan, however, have investigated the food safety literacy of both consumers and proprietors of online food delivery services during the pandemic in Taiwan.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the enforcement of lockdowns and shelter-in-place policies across the world. As a consequence, there was also an increase in the use of online shopping and online food delivery services.

The use of online food delivery services was so widespread, that in Taiwan, about 56 percent of the population has used these services during the pandemic. From fruits and vegetables to snacks and cooked meals, food delivery services offer a wide range of foods to consumers. But along with the improved convenience and access to food, these foods can also prove a risk in case they are undercooked, or if appropriate hygiene and temperature control is not maintained during their transport and preparation.

A team of researchers, led by Professor Hsiu-Ling Chen from National Cheng Kung University, investigated the potential food safety risk of using online food delivery platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic in Taiwan. They performed a cross-sectional study with data on demographic characteristics, habits around the usage of online food delivery services, and food safety literacy from 367 consumers and 122 delivery personnel.

They found that the primary reason for the use of online food delivery platforms was convenience. Reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19 and enticing offers and discounts ranked second and third, respectively. They also found that the most commonly ordered foods were hot cooked rice or noodles, hand-shaken beverages, and hot cooked meat. Importantly, the use of online food delivery platforms increased by more than 20 percent after the onset of the pandemic. Moreover, there was an 8.5 percent increase in people who ordered food online 4 to 6 times a week.

“A key finding of our study is that, overall, the food safety literacy of the consumers is very good; however, there is a need to strengthen literacy on meal received temperature and food registration temperature, especially in the 21 to 30 year age group,” says Professor Chen.

From the data from food delivery personnel, the researchers found that about 30 percent of them conducted about 16 to 20 deliveries a day. About half the food delivery personnel used alcohol to clean the food delivery boxes. After the COVID-19 pandemic began, there was an increase of 18 percent in food delivery personnel who cleaned the boxes 2 to 4 times a day. The findings indicated that the overall food safety literacy of food delivery personnel was very good. However, there were lower scores on knowledge of the temperature of the meals.

The researchers used this information to formulate recommendations to communicate the food safety risk of online food delivery services. The foremost recommendation was for online food delivery companies to incorporate temperature control equipment within their delivery boxes or provide a thermometer to check the temperature of the meal. Another way to maintain the temperatures of the foods would be to separate the hot and cold meals inside the delivery box with a divider. The second recommendation is to improve the quality of leak-proof packaging, as food leakage was one of the most commonly encountered problems with online food delivery services.

“Another way that online food delivery companies can improve food safety is by being transparent about their relevant hygiene certifications with labels. Food delivery personnel can also disclose the delivery conditions of the food,” adds Professor Chen.

In conclusion, this study provides insights into the food safety scenario of online food delivery services in Taiwan, as well as some key recommendations on areas for improvement. 

For more about this study, watch this video, here

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