Eating at home a risky business

Results of new study point to need for improvement in food safety practices in the home

17 May, 2005. Research findings presented at a conference in UCD earlier today found that many households in Ireland are at risk because of poor food safety knowledge and practices in the home.

The collaborative study, entitled ‘Food practices in the home, what are the risks?’ was funded by safefood, the Food Safety Promotion Board and was conducted by the Department of Food Science at Queen's University, Belfast and the Department of Agribusiness Extension and Rural Development at University College Dublin. 

Dr. David McCleery, Chief Specialist, Microbiology, safefood was involved in the research project. He used an innovative research method to record food safety behaviour in homes throughout the island of Ireland. The researchers scored one thousand consumer responses to a video, which highlighted 17 different food hazards relating to shopping, storage and food preparation. Dr. McCleery found that no one was able to identify all potential food safety hazards. Nine potential hazards relating to specifically to food preparation were shown to consumers and only half were able to identify four or more of the hazards shown. 

‘These results indicate the real need for education on food safety in the home. Continuously using simple hygienic practices in the kitchen will reduce the risk of transmission of foodborne pathogens, within the home,’ said Dr. McCleery.

‘In fact, the study reassuringly indicated that food safety education does work because those who had recently been exposed to food safety information, or who had a qualification in food, scored significantly higher, as did women and those who regularly shop and prepare food’.

‘Supporting this on-going project reflects safefood's commitment to meeting consumer’s needs, in terms of food safety and nutritional information and also how this information can be more easily accessed. The results of this work will be used to help inform safefood’s future consumer education activities’, he said. 

The findings of Dr. McCleery’s research were also reflected in the data presented by Dr. Anne Markey from UCD, who conducted a study involving over 3,000 school children in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, this time using a food diary approach.

Dr. Markey discovered that 60% of the children’s households surveyed had at least one risky practice in the kitchen. She found that 1/3 of households stored raw meat above the cooked meat in the fridge, which can allow the cooked food to be more easily contaminated from drips and spills. 12% of people stored food beyond its sell by date.

‘A common theme emerging from many food safety studies is that a substantial proportion of foodborne diseases are attributable to improper food safety practices in consumers’ homes. With over 3,000 households involved in this study, it paints a very sizeable picture of the lack of food safety practices in homes. As food safety practices in the home are our last line of defence against foodborne diseases, it is clear that there is a real need to educate consumers and increase their knowledge of food safety’, said Dr. Markey.

The primary objective of this research was to study food safety behaviour in the home. However, the research also provides insights into the dietary habits of 9-11 year olds on the island of Ireland. Preliminary analysis of school lunch boxes and one day food diaries examined by Dr. Roy Nelson of Loughry Campus CAFRE indicates that children are being given too little fruit, fibre, carbohydrates and dairy foods and relatively too much energy dense – nutrient poor foods, such as sweets, crisps and sugary drinks.

Dr. Cliodhna Foley Nolan, Public Health Specialist with safefood commented that ‘this aspect of the research gives further evidence in support of the ROI Obesity Taskforce Strategy (launched 16th May ’05) and the NI “Fit Futures” Strategy (due out later in 2005). It all adds up to the same picture, energy balance is a health problem for our children”.

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For more information please contact

Sharon Murphy or Dr. Aileen McGloin  
Tel: 01 6690030

Fiona Gilligan 
Tel: 01 4480600    

Editor's Notes

The survey aspect of this study reported on today, forms part of a greater project which is entitled ‘the development of a risk communications model based upon food safety behaviours in the home to facilitate the adoption of best practice in disseminating information with a food risk component’. The workshops held in UCD  (Tuesday May 17th) and Loughry (Wednesday May 18th)  will be used to assist in the development of best practice guidelines for communicating food risks.

safefood expect a final report on this project towards the end of the summer.

The primary aim of the survey aspect of this project was to map the factors that influence food safety behaviour, especially in the home, and thereby predict consumer responses to communications with a food risk component.

A central theme of the research was the use of a food diary to collect descriptive accounts of food safety practices within the home environment. This research tool was used to collect important information relating to typical compositions of packed lunches, normal eating practices of primary school children and details of how food is prepared and stored within the home.

A further complementary aspect of the study was the development and application of a novel multimedia method to assess the ability of consumers to cognitively recognise food risk, thereby indicating their likely behaviour in the home.

Nutritional Aspect of the Study - Dr. Roy Nelson & Ms Norma Windrum
Loughry Campus CAFRE

As eating habits are developed early in life, the aim of this part of the study is to determine the nutritional balance of primary school children’s daily diet. The work is ongoing and preliminary results will be discussed at the workshop in UCD.

There were 3,320 respondents, aged 9 – 11 years in the study, involving 1,425 pupils in Northern Ireland and 1,895 pupils in the Republic of Ireland.