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Preprepared convenience foods and associated food safety risks

Preprepared convenience foods and associated food safety risks

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Executive summary

Aims

This project aimed to:

  • Audit, or survey, the on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions on “preprepared convenience foods” available on the island of Ireland.
  • Observe how people treat convenience foods in the home.
  • Explore consumer purchasing, as well as attitudes and understanding around convenience foods (including the on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions).

Objectives

  • The objectives of the research project were to:
  • Examine ( through selected product audit surveys) the on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions for handling, storing and preparing (including the use of leftovers) a variety of preprepared convenience foods from r etail outlets and meal preparation businesses that sell direct to the consumer.
  • Determine (through in-home observations) how people handle, store and prepare selected convenience foods in the domestic environment, and their compliance with on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions (including the use of leftovers).
  • Explore and investigate further (through interviews and an online survey) consumer purchasing, knowledge, attitudes and understanding (including the on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions) with regard to handling, storing and preparing preprepared convenience foods.
  • Provide recommendations for consumers and food manufacturers regarding the handling, storage, and preparation of preprepared convenience foods to maximise food safety and quality, and provide sound scientific advice to inform practice, policy and future research.

For the purposes of this project, “preprepared convenience foods” means a whole preprepared meal (not a single ingredient) that is purchased chilled (not frozen) and requires the consumer to carry out a treatment step at home before consumption (for example, heating the meal).

Methods

To meet the aims and objectives, the researchers used both quantitative and qualitative study methods to collect data. The researchers completed 5 tasks designed to meet the objectives. They conducted

  1. A literature review of relevant articles
  2. An audit survey of on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions from 266 preprepared convenience meals collected at retail outlets across the island of Ireland
  3. In-home observations of 50 consumers
  4. Interviews with 50 consumers (instead of planned focus groups, to comply with COVID-19 regulations)
  5. An online survey of 500 consumers

The review of available scientific literature explored consumer knowledge, behaviours and attitudes in relation to use and associated safety risks of preprepared convenience foods.

Data was collected on on-pack and manufacturer-provided information and instructions for selected preprepared convenience foods, as well as on consumers’ perceived and actual behaviours, relating to the handling, storage and preparation of convenience foods (including the use of leftovers).

  • Quantitative data on on-pack and manufacturer-provided information and instructions for consumers was collected through an audit survey of selected products from 6 locations (3 urban and 3 rural) across the island of Ireland. The information on the 266 products was collected, organised and analysed in detail to gain a greater understanding of the instructions provided.
  • Quantitative data was collected from observations made in people’s homes, involving50 participants across the island of Ireland, to understand actual consumer behaviour in relation to their handling, storage and preparation of 5 selected preprepared convenience foods (including the use of leftovers).
  • Qualitative data was collected from interviews with the 50 participants that took part in the in-home observations, to gain insights into consumers’ perceptions relating to their handling, storage and preparation of selected preprepared convenience foods, their general use of convenience food products and their perceptions around the clarity of the provided instructions. (These interviews replaced the planned focus group interviews, to comply with COVID-19 regulations.)
  • Quantitative data was collected from an online survey of 500 participants from the island of Ireland. The survey used a representative sample of frequent users of preprepared convenience foods to explore consumers’ behaviours in relation to convenience foods and to understand the factors that influence these behaviours.

Results

The literature review highlighted limited research in the area of consumers’ behaviours relating to preprepared convenience foods. The limited relevant literature indicated that food safety knowledge varied among sociodemographic groups (based on income, education, gender and age, for example), and that people’s behaviours relating to storage and following use-by dates were not always in line with the guidance.

The audit survey indicated that some preprepared convenience foods did not comply with legislation around ingredient and allergen lists and that the details provided for reheating and freezing were insufficient.

The in-home observations showed that participants did not always check the use-by instructions and were extremely unlikely to identify food safety hazards such as damaged packaging. Also, some participants were willing to reheat and consume leftovers of preprepared convenience foods.

However, in general, the majority of the participants complied with the cooking instructions as much as possible. The interviews revealed the main reasons for using preprepared food products are “convenience” (the products are quick and easy to use) and a general belief that convenience foods are safe.

Participants reported a high compliance with use-by dates and cooking instructions. However, problems relating to the size of the font, the level of detail and location of the instructions were identified. Overall, the online survey participants demonstrated relatively low safe behaviours in relation to storage, preparation and use of leftovers of preprepared convenience foods. Older participants had higher food safety knowledge and safer behaviours relating to preprepared convenience foods. The significant variables influencing better overall behaviours in the usage of preprepared convenience foods were food safety knowledge, believability of the use-by dates, perception of food poisoning susceptibility, belief in the likelihood of getting food poisoning, perceived food poisoning severity and age.

Conclusions

  • Key information relating to ingredients, allergens, cooking instructions, reheating and freezing is missing from some preprepared convenience food products.
  • Greater consumer compliance with product use-by dates and cooking instructions are required for better food safety.
  • Some consumers reheat leftovers of preprepared convenience foods and consume them, which may have food safety implications.
  • Older consumers have a higher food safety knowledge and better behaviours relating to storage, heating and use of leftovers of preprepared convenience foods than younger consumers.
  • Several variable factors influenced people’s behaviour relating to the handling, storage, preparation and use of leftovers of convenience foods.

These include:

  • Higher levels of food safety knowledge
  • Greater belief in use-by dates
  • Greater belief in susceptibility to food poisoning
  • Lower belief in the likelihood of getting food poisoning from convenience foods
  • Greater perceptions around the severity of food poisoning
  • Higher age

Key recommendations for consumers, manufacturers, educators and policy makers

Recommendations for consumers

  • Check and comply with the use-by date
  • Store products in the fridge unless specific instructions are provided for freezing
  • Do not reheat and consume leftovers unless specific instructions are provided for the safe reheating of the product

Recommendations for manufacturers of preprepared convenience foods

  • Clearly state the ingredients list and all allergens on all preprepared convenience food products
  • Use larger writing (in bold print and capitals) for all instructions
  • Provide clear freezing and reheating instructions or information that the product is unsuitable for these processes

Recommendations for educators and policy makers

  • Increase consumer food safety knowledge
  • Change consumer perceptions on food poisoning, potential food hazards, and possible severe consequences of and susceptibility to food poisoning


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