Research – Food Handling Concerns and Practices at-Home during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Food Security Status

Journal of Food Protection

There is limited examination about COVID-19-related food handling concerns and practices that cause chemical or microbial contamination and illness, particularly among those with food insecurity. We investigated consumer food handling concerns and practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether they differed by food insecurity status. An online survey was distributed among Chicago, Illinois residents between July 15-August 21, 2020 (N=437). Independent t-tests and Fisher’s Exact tests were used to identify differences in food handling concerns and practices between those with and without food insecurity (alpha=0.05). Survey items included questions about food handling practices that were considered safe or neutral (i.e., washing hands and produce with water, sanitizing food packaging) and unsafe (i.e., using cleaning agents to wash foods, leaving perishable foods outside) using 5-point Likert-style scales or categorical responses (i.e., yes, no). Participant responses fell between “slightly” and “somewhat” concerned about contracting COVID-19 from food and food packaging (mean ± SE: 2.7±0.1). While participants reported washing their hands before eating and preparing foods at least “most of the time” (mean ± SE: 4.4 ± 0.0 and 4.5 ± 0.0, respectively), only one-third engaged in unsafe practices. The majority of participants (68%) indicated that they altered food handling practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic and received information about food safety from social media (61%).  When investigating differences in concerns and practices by food insecurity status, food insecure participants were more concerned about COVID-19 foodborne transmission for all food items (ps<0.0001) and more frequently performed unsafe based food handling practices than those with food security (ps<0.0001). Results from this study suggest more investigation is needed to understand barriers to safe food handling knowledge and practices, particularly among those with food insecurity.

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