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Food safety risks posed by COVID-19

Many people woefully ignorant about food safety risks posed by COVID-19.  A new study conducted by researchers from University College London has identified potentially harmful misperceptions about COVID-19 and nutrition.

With a number of world leaders spreading dangerous advice about drinking disinfectant or even injecting it or taking antimalarial drugs for COVID-19 prevention despite scientists’ warnings, inoculating the public against harmful misinformation has never been more pressing, UCL researchers on misinformation urge.

In their study, launched jointly with The Health Sciences Academy shortly after lockdowns began, recruiting a cohort of 3,781 respondents, University College London’s Professor Michael J. Reiss and doctoral researcher Alex Ruani investigated the prevalence of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 food and eating practices. For this, they designed a survey study including 25 statements with the option to answer ‘correct’, ‘incorrect’, or ‘not sure’ in order to capture the participants’ views. Two-thirds of participants came from the UK, the USA, India and Ireland. The others came from one of 119 countries.

Alarmingly, 43% of participants wrongly believe that it is safe to eat fruits and vegetables that have been washed with soap or diluted bleach, supposedly to remove potential COVID-19 viral particles. Ruani highlights that “It’s not safe to wash your fresh produce with soap or diluted bleach. But, quite worryingly, we found that a large number of people might be engaging in this harmful food practice despite food authorities’ warnings”.

Other potentially harmful misperceptions about COVID-19 and nutrition uncovered in this study, the first of its kind, included:

  • “Drinking water flushes all COVID-19 viral particles into the oesophagus and then the stomach, where they will be completely disintegrated by gastric acid” (21% wrongly believe this is correct, and 22% are unsure)
  • “You can protect yourself from the novel coronavirus by gargling bleach” (3.3% wrongly believe this is correct, and 7.5% are unsure)
  • “Keep your mouth and throat always moist, as saliva can encapsulate and deactivate the COVID-19 virus. (25% wrongly believe this is correct, and 29% are unsure)

Encouragingly, 96% believe that to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, we should try to avoid direct contact with the person delivering groceries or packages, and wash our hands thoroughly after bringing in packages or grocery deliveries.

“Most people understand the importance of social distancing in preventing the spread of COVID-19. However, there are important misunderstandings about the implications of food safety and eating practices. Governments can help allay fears and reduce COVID-19 transmission by promoting clear public health messages about food and eating.” Quote from Professor Michael J. Reiss, UCL Institute of Education.

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