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Study finds link between belief in food safety myths and disease

Believing certain myths about food safety can increase the risk of disease, according to a study.

The researchers looked at how uninformed non-scientific beliefs and the consequences of a lack of scientific knowledge about food safety could affect health.

Many people in the UK, Germany and Norway believe food safety myths, but opinions vary by country. Believing some of these myths puts people at higher risk for foodborne illness, found the study published in food control.

After collecting more than 150 food safety myths across Europe from SafeConsume project partners, 47 were included in a survey.

Don’t vegetarians get food poisoning?
The researchers conducted a web-based survey of more than 3,000 consumers in the UK, Germany and Norway to investigate what myths people believed to be true and whether this influenced the incidence and prevalence of gastroenteritis. People were asked if they disagreed or agreed with the statements.

The results show that many people believe in food safety myths and this is positively correlated with the incidence and prevalence of gastroenteritis.

The strongest links were seen in beliefs about eggs, such as storing them at room temperature and eating raw eggs to cure a hangover; that a wooden cutting board, chili, wasabi, and marinades kill bacteria; that vegetarians do not suffer from food poisoning; and that eating dirt and having diarrhea is good because it cleanses the stomach.

Gastroenteritis incidence data comes from another SafeConsume survey in 2019. An analysis of data on acceptance of food safety belief statements and the prevalence and incidence of reported gastroenteritis episodes was performed.

In Germany, more people thought that if you heat too much healthy foods they lose their wholesomeness; once the food has been cooked, all bacteria have been killed and it is safe to eat, and the chicken should be washed before consumption.

More people in the UK think that the old traditional way of preparing food was better than modern methods and that all food should be kept at 2 degrees C (33.8 degrees F). Norwegians are likely to believe that if food smells and tastes good, it’s safe to eat. Other myths included eating oysters only if there is an “r” in the name of the month, and the five-second rule for food that has been on the ground.

Impact of some myths
The researchers identified eight categories of beliefs ranging from views about heating, about what foods are safest, about what kills bacteria, about hygiene and superstitious beliefs. People first form beliefs and then look for evidence to support them.

A high percentage of consumers believe that organic is safer than conventionally grown food.

Three beliefs related to Campylobacter and chicken—bacteria don’t survive on wooden cutting boards, salt kills anything dangerous, and chicken should be washed before cooking—significantly correlate with the prevalence of gastroenteritis.

Despite various campaigns warning about the risks of washing chicken, many consumers continue to do so before cooking and this was confirmed in the study, with more than half of those surveyed agreeing that chicken should be washed before cooking.

On average, 15 percent of those surveyed agreed that the best breakfast for a hangover is a raw egg. Consumption of raw egg products is a risk factor for salmonellosis.

A fifth of those surveyed believed that eggs stored in the refrigerator are less safe than those kept at room temperature. Storing the eggs in the refrigerator will prevent bacterial growth, but they can become contaminated by the time they are laid.

Future studies should investigate why beliefs in food safety myths correlate with the incidence and prevalence of gastroenteritis. Other work should look at methods of behavior change, including the correction of false beliefs.

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