SafeConsume: Food consumer behaviour

Article written by Ângela Sofia Alves, a food microbiologist and a researcher worker in the European project SafeConsume

SafeConsume project aims to bring safer food through changed consumer behaviour by providing efffective tools and products, communication strategies, education and a food safety policy reducing health burden from foodborne illnesses.

Food safety violations at the consumer stage are common and nearly 40.5 % of food-borne outbreaks occur in the domestic setting. The overall goal of SafeConsume is to provide effective, science-based and sustainable strategies to help consumers mitigate risk, thus reducing the health burden from food-borne illness in Europe.

 

Safeconsume aims to develop and evaluate:

. Tools, technologies and products (e.g. sensors, apps, hygiene concepts, kitchen utensils) that stimulate safe practices.

. Communication strategies that effectively stimulate adoption and market uptake of safer practices and tools/technologies.

. Education programs increasing skills and knowledge aiding teenagers to handle food safely.

. Dynamic, sustainable and inclusive policy models that stimulates and support national and EU level initiatives.

 

To achieve high implementation and innovation power, scientists work together with consumers, authorities and different market actors under a new trans-disciplinary and multi-actor approach. SafeConsume studies target the top five foodborne hazards (Salmonella enterica, Campylobacter spp., Toxoplasma gondii, Norovirus and Listeria monocytogenes) in Europe, accounting for about 70% of the health burden related to food borne illness.

 

In order to create new strategies to help the consumer to mitigate food risks and reduce the number of foodborne diseases at the consumer stage, it was necessary to assess the consumer’s knowledge of food hygiene and proper sanitation, to identify family attitudes in relation to food safety and to evaluate the hygiene practices of families in some stages of food handling. After these observations, it was found that consumers are increasingly avoiding the consumption of chemical-treated foods so vinegar and lemon juice solutions were used as more attractive natural alternatives in the disinfection of fruits and vegetables. Thus, Ângela’s experimental work was carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of these alternative methods of disinfection on lettuce and tomatoes artificially contaminated by L. monocytogenes. Different concentrations of washing solutions simulating the concentrations used at household were tested. Results indicate that the addition of a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice to water, a method often used by fruit and vegetables consumers, particularly pregnant women or other immunosuppressed individuals, to better disinfect lettuce and other vegetables that are eaten raw, does not eliminate L. monocytogenes. Thus, consumers shall be warned that this home prepared solutions used to disinfect lettuce do not assure its safety.

 

In addition, mishandling and improper hygienic practices by consumers were prevalent in cooking and processing environments, including unwashed hands and cutting boards used for different foods (raw meats and vegetables), that can originate cross-contamination between raw and ready-to-eat foods. Thus, a cross contamination scenario of preparing domestic meals as closely as possible to the reality was designed as follows: pieces of chicken artificially inoculated with different microorganisms (namely L. monocytogenes, Salmonella spp. and Campylobacter spp.) – hands – table salt – pre-lettuce washed. The transfer of the pathogens from inoculated chicken meat to the hands and then to the lettuce was evaluated by quantitative and qualitative methodologies. This study showed the ability of Salmonella spp. and L. monocytogenes to survive for a long time on table salt at room temperature, and shows that these pathogens can be transferred from table salt to ready to eat food during handling. Thus, it is very important to prevent cross-contamination to ensure consumer safety and reduce outbreaks of salmonellosis and listeriosis.

 

The assays were carried out by Ângela under the guidance of Professor Paula Teixeira and Doctor Vânia Ferreira of the Centro de Biotecnologia e Química Fina da Escola Superior de Biotecnologia da Universidade Católica in Porto. Two manuscripts are being written and soon will be available to everyone.

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