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The COVID-19 consumer research

The Food Standards Agency with Ipsos Mori and Bright Harbour carried out research in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to monitor the experience and behaviours of consumers when it comes to key food risks during the pandemic.
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Background

The Food Standards Agency commissioned social research to develop its evidence base on issues affecting consumers and businesses in order to inform its COVID-19 response. The published data includes waves from April to November 2020, the data from future waves will be published in due course.  

Ipsos Mori were commissioned to track consumer attitudes through an omnibus survey. Bright Harbour were commissioned to produce qualitative reports on the lived experience of people living in food insecurity during COVID-19 and the impact on consumers’ engagement with the food system in June and November 2020.  

Additionally, we undertook in house social media listening to support our insight gathering around the impact of COVID-19 on food safety, food authenticity and food regulation. 

In addition, the COVID-19 expert panel was set up to help identify the most important implications of the COVID-19 outbreak in relation to food policy. The FSA drew on its networks of leading researchers and industry experts between April and November 2020.  

Key findings 

COVID-19 Consumer Tracker 

Eating out 

Prior to the second national lockdown, a tenth of respondents said they felt it was safe to eat out in October, continuing a slow but significant upward trend seen since early summer (e.g. July 6%). Around 1 in 5 (21%) reported that they did not intend to eat out in the foreseeable future. This figure was stable across the previous 3 months, following a significant drop in August (to 20%, from 31% in July).

Eating food past use-by dates

A sizeable proportion of people continue to eat more risky foods past their use by date. In November, this ranged from 20% to 38% among those who had eaten the food in question. Food insecurity is a factor in this behaviour with those who reported cutting the size of their meals or skipping meals due to financial concerns being less likely to report always checking use by dates (37% compared to 48%).

Food availability/affordability 

Levels of food insecurity dipped in August (to 12% from 16% in July) but increased significantly in September (to 18%) and have remained steady since. In November 1 in 5 respondents (19%) reported cutting down on meals for financial reasons.  

Food insecurity is a particular issue for younger age groups, being experienced by 38% of 16-24 year olds in November, a significant increase since the late summer (22% in August). Those who have been advised to self-isolate, households with a child, and those who have a physical or mental health condition, are also more likely to be experiencing food insecurity.  

There continues to be a particularly steep age differential in reported food bank or food charity usage, with 26% of 16-24 year olds reporting accessing food in this way in November but only 3% of those aged 45-54. The 16-24 year age group has seen a 3 fold increase since August (9%). 

The lived experience of food insecurity under COVID-19

The qualitative research showed how people in food insecurity were coping with income loss, which has rapidly exacerbated existing insecurity and vulnerabilities. 

  • Basic costs rising (such as utility bills or caring for parents or children) impacted access to affordable food.  
  • Impacts reached far beyond missed meals: participants were experiencing complex and interlocking physical, emotional, social and financial challenges.
  • People were unable to access sufficient help to meet their needs, or alternatively were unaware of support that may be available or unwilling to access charitable help due to perceived stigma.    

Consumers and the food system: COVID-19 

The qualitative research showed that more generally, COVID-19 had changed how consumers buy, cook and eat food.

  • Experiences of COVID-19 for UK citizens were variable, including time, space to spare, health, employment and financial status, existing food habits, geography and trust in food businesses and systems. 
  • Many experienced positive changes to household food behaviours that they wished to continue as lockdown eased, for example increased home-cooking and food sharing and increased attention to diet.
  • Trust in food businesses had mostly strengthened under COVID-19, driven primarily by a perceived robust ‘return to normal’ after early disruptions like product shortages. 
  • Participants were eager for clear visual safety cues in shops, particularly clear social distancing. 
  • Participants were for the most part not thinking in-depth about UK or global food systems under COVID-19. However, awareness of food systems issues were more prominent than in past research.  

Social media listening 

  • Key themes included consumer purchasing behaviours, food delivery, restaurants’ response to lockdown and safety around new regulations and recommendations.    
  • This short study demonstrated the potential use and inherent limitations of using social media to gain insight into people’s behaviour and attitudes. In context with survey and desk research data, social media listening helped to provide a more complete picture of how the public reacted to this pandemic in near real time. We concluded that social media analysis should be used to support other, more robust research and surveys.

FSA COVID-19 expert panel 

Our expert panel helped us to understand the potential impact of longer-term changes. They concluded that the policy response to COVID-19 outbreak needs to be responsive, far reaching, and address the needs of both the consumer and food businesses. 

  • In the short term, a reduction of regulatory oversight/inspection was a cause of concern.  
  • Later, changing businesses models leading to a lack of awareness of requirements was another focus. Changes to business practices include business diversification, specifically the shift to online delivery and takeaway 
  • Changes to consumer behaviours include an increase in home cooking/food preparation. 

Data tables are available for each Wave on our open data catalogue. You will also find guidance on how to use the data tables. We hope to be able to upload our SPSS datasets on to the open data catalogue shortly.