Online cooking game shows promise for reducing food poisoning in homes

Have you ever fallen ill from food you've eaten? It happens 23 million times every year in Europe. Researchers have investigated what it takes to prevent people from getting sick from the food they prepare and eat at home. An online cooking game showed promising results for both awareness of food safety and risk-reducing behavior.

"The goal of the EU project SafeConsume is to reduce food poisoning in homes. We develop and test several strategies to succeed. One of these is to investigate the effects of engaging online games," says Solveig Langsrud, senior researcher at Nofima and the coordinator of SafeConsume.

Behavior in a virtual world affects how you behave in the real world

"Wash surfaces and hands before and while cooking. Thoroughly clean utensils, cutting boards and kitchen surfaces after handling food items, ideally using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat. Make sure that the chicken is sufficiently cooked."

This is some of the advice given to ensure safe food. In their study, the researchers show that providing information through a 2-minute video already helps to increase people's awareness of what it takes to avoid food poisoning. At the same time, the researchers see that simply providing information is rarely enough to change the behavior in the kitchen. This is partly because preparing food involves many repetitive tasks that are done habitually without much thought about what one is doing. Here, online games can play an important role, because they engage people to practice correct food handling in the virtual environment and thereby can help break routines.

By asking participants questions about their food safety related knowledge and their food handling behavior we could see that participants became more aware of how to ensure that food is safe and that they changed their cooking routines in line with the behaviors they had been given points for in the game compared to a control group who did not play the game."

Alexander K. Koch, professor at Aarhus University and lead author of the study

The Safeconsume game engages at any age

1,087 participants from Norway and the United Kingdom, ranging in age range from 20-50 years old, participated in the study. In addition, a further 886 people participated in a second sample outside the originally set age range, with the oldest participant being 89 years old.

"Prior to the study, we had expected that the commitment to participate and playing the online game was greatest among young people. Surprisingly, it turned out that the effects that we found were remarkably stable across the different age groups," says Nina Veflen, senior researcher at Nofima and professor at BI Norwegian Business Scholl. She is behind the basic idea of the study.

How the study worked

The participants started by responding to a survey on, among other things, cooking and food hygiene habits, and what they thought about a variety of myths linked to food safety. Then they were assigned to one of four conditions. Except in the control condition, participants watched a two-minute video that addressed the five categories:

  • personal hygiene (hand washing),
  • kitchen hygiene (cleaning utensils and surfaces),
  • washing fresh vegetables and fruits,
  • not rinsing meat or poultry,
  • heating meat thoroughly.

These five categories reflect "The five keys to safer food" prepared by the World Health Organization (WHO).

After the video, the actual cooking game started for participants in the game conditions. Here the participants would prepare four different dishes by following a recipe. that involved chicken, some raw vegetable or fruit and bread. Immediately after each dish was prepared, the participants received feedback on how well they performed in terms of food safety.
The researchers followed up seven days after with a new questionnaire about food safety related knowledge and behaviors. It turned out that both those who had only seen the video and those who had played the online game had become more aware of food safety risks in the home compared to the control group, but only those who played the game had changed their food preparation behavior.

The game is available in several languages

The game is made as part of the Horizon 2020 project SafeConsume. Online games have the huge advantage that they are immediately accessible to many users. The SafeConsume game has been translated into nine languages. You can find it via AppStore and GooglePlay.

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