safefood research found that key ingredients and allergens information is missing from some preprepared convenience food products
In December 2019, safefood commissioned research to understand the nature of preprepared ‘convenience foods’ and the associated food safety risks. The aims of the research were to collect data on the types of ready-made, prepacked ‘convenience foods’ available in retailers and businesses across the island, and to assess the behaviours and understanding of people who consume preprepared foods. Preprepared ‘convenience foods’ are ready-made, prepacked foods, such as chilled meals, that need little processing in the home. They can be sold uncooked, partially cooked or fully cooked. For the purposes of this research project, ‘preprepared convenience foods’ referred to 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).
The objectives of the project were to examine the on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions for handling, storing and preparing preprepared convenience meals from retail outlets and meal preparation businesses that sell direct to the consumer, such as cafés. It sought to determine how people actually handle, store and prepare ‘ready’ meals at home, and their compliance with on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions. It set out to explore and investigate consumer purchasing, knowledge, attitudes and understanding of handling, storing and preparing preprepared convenience foods; and lastly, to form a set of recommendations for consumers and food manufacturers regarding the handling, storage and preparation of preprepared convenience foods in order to maximise food safety and quality, and provide sound scientific advice to inform practice, policy and future research.
Researchers used quantitative and qualitative study methods to collect data, including: a literature review of relevant articles; an audit of on-pack and manufacturer-provided instructions; in-home observations of consumers; and interviews and online surveys with consumers.
The literature review highlighted the limited research conducted into consumers’ behaviours relating to preprepared convenience foods. The available literature indicated that food safety knowledge varied among sociodemographic groups,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 meals 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 in the study 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 meals. 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” 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 the handling, storage, preparation and use of leftovers of convenience foods. Older participants had higher food safety knowledge and safer behaviours relating to convenience foods.
The research concluded that key information relating to ingredients, allergens, cooking instructions, reheating and freezing is missing from some preprepared convenience food products. It found that greater consumer compliance with product use-by dates and cooking instructions are required for better food safety. The research showed that some consumers reheat leftovers of preprepared convenience foods and consume them, which may have food safety implications, and that 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. It revealed that a number of variable factors infl uenced people’s behaviour relating to the handling, storage, preparation and use of leftovers of convenience foods. These included:
• 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.