Food safety gains increasing clout on social media

The food safety community has spent much of the past few years discussing a perceived increase in foodborne illness outbreaks — and the actual increase in food recalls due to them. We know that the apparent increase is simply attributable to better reporting methods and technologies that make it easier to catch outbreaks and spread the news among the public.

Today, the public is generally aware of a large outbreak soon after the authorities make a statement about it. This is in part thanks to the news media, but also due to a source that spreads information like wildfire: social media.

Not only can consumers share and discuss recall and outbreak notices on an unprecedented vast forum, but they can connect directly with food companies and even regulatory authorities with the click of a button. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb (whose final day as commissioner coincides with the publication of this post) has spent his tenure at the FDA very active on Twitter, sharing outbreak news, food safety tips and other health information to an engaged audience. Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas is similarly present on the social media platform.

Not only are individual experts like Gottlieb and Yiannas active on social media, but so too are the agencies people like them represent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety account has more than 142 million followers.

As social media continues to become one of our society’s most important means of communication (experts predict 2.77 billion people will use social media in 2019), we can expect these platforms to capture more importance in spreading outbreak news. When consumers hear of a recall, the impulse is to share the story quickly, in order to make their loved ones aware of a potential health risk, and it’s becoming easier to do so each year.

The Packer notes that news of a recent recall of avocados was disseminated at “an astronomical rate,” garnering attention from major news networks such as CNN and USA Today. We saw a similar situation with 2018’s recalls of romaine lettuce due to possible E. coli contamination, which reached meme status in some parts of the Internet.

Of course, social media is rapidly affecting all industry spheres and communities, so none of this may be surprising. Still, it’s important for food safety professionals to keep its impacts in mind as they plan for the future.

To read about how food companies can safeguard their images on social media, check out our post “In a social media era, brand protection starts with food safety.”

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