New report reveals impact of COVID-19 on food consumption

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AUTHOR: Matt Ridout

A new report that surveyed 5,000 consumers in 10 European countries reveals how the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns have had a profound impact on food purchasing and consumption. The report published by EIT Food, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), points to a consumer market with a greater focus on health, sustainability and cooking.

The report shows lockdown measures may have caused lasting behaviour change in relation to food consumption – marked by substantial shifts in shopping patterns, meal preparation and eating habits. The research was carried out by a consortium of leading universities in Europe, led by Aarhus University, Denmark. The ten countries surveyed were Spain, Sweden, Germany, UK, Poland, Italy, France, Greece, Finland, Romania.

The new report comes just months after the European Commission published its landmark Farm to Fork strategy, calling for the creation of a food environment that makes it easier for consumers to choose healthy and sustainable diets, while having access to sufficient and affordable food. As Europe recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a unique opportunity for industry to engage with consumers and build on rising health and sustainability trends.

Consumers across Europe suffered financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. A third of respondents (34%) lost part or all of their income and more than half (55%) said they found it difficult to make ends meet every month.

Despite this, European consumers reported buying more in almost every food category, as COVID-19 lockdowns and a rise in homeworking across Europe led to people spending more time at home and eating out less.

The largest behavioural shift was the way we shop, with nearly half of consumers reporting an increase in online shopping (45%); bulk purchases (47%); and carefully planned shopping trips (45%).

European consumers are also spending more time in the kitchen with over a third (36%) reporting that they have enjoyed spending time cooking during lockdown. Sharing this experience with others became more important too, with three in ten (29%) sitting down to eat together as a household more regularly.

According to the survey, the increased significance that food has played in our lives will continue after lockdown measures are lifted. Nearly a third of consumers said it will be more important to have time to cook home-made meals (27%) and to continue eating more varied foods (30%) after the pandemic.

While affordability will remain a priority for many, with 32% saying that access to food at low prices will be more important, it should not come at the cost of health and good nutrition. On the contrary, almost half of consumers (49%) said being in good health will be more important to them as a result of COVID-19.

In addition to prioritising their own health, European consumers reported a number of changes that could have a positive impact on the health of the planet. For example, over a third (35%) said that buying locally produced food has become more important to them during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it seems the trend for shopping locally is set to continue, with almost nine in ten (87%) reporting that they were very likely to continue doing so in the future.

Professor Klaus Grunert, Head of Section of the Department of Management at Aarhus University, said, “Our research shows that COVID-19 has changed the way people think about, purchase, plan and consume their food. The silver lining during this pandemic has been the rise of various positive trends, particularly around sustainability and health. The industry has a real opportunity to innovate to meet consumer needs, for instance through new experiences for consumers to enjoy food at home or tailoring their online experience to new ways of shopping.”

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