The Role of Social Media in Food Safety and Public Information
Over the past 20 years, the way consumers think about food has changed; drastically. Consumers are making dietary decisions based on the information they learn from internet and social media – instead of their doctors and/or the scientific community. As most of us know, the internet is full of conflicting advice: Gluten is bad, carbs are good, GMOs are okay, GMOs are killing you, etc. It can be difficult to figure out which advice is right, and which is wrong. That is why easily accessible internet channels are so important. Social media represents an opportunity for the Food Industry to enter the conversation surrounding food safety and engage, educate, and interact with the consumer directly.
Consumers are innately skeptical of food processing; this is in part because they do not fully understand it. Most consumers want two things: 1. the safest food, and 2. the least-processed food possible. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to consumers, with food technologies and more processing usually comes greater food safety and security. This conflict arises from a lack of credible information and an abundance of misinformation.
While social media is an incredible tool for communicating and educating consumers, it is also the primary tool for spreading misinformation. The hard truth is that social media makes idiots into experts and often gives priority to the loudest voice in a conversation, not the most credible. Scientists must compete with pseudoscientists, bloggers, and even celebrities, who disseminate false information and hinder trust in scientific authority.
This is problematic because consumers directly impact food safety through their food handling, preparation methods, and voting practices. The United Nations estimates that between 30-40% of food-borne illness is caused by poor hygienic practices in the home. Unfortunately, consumers are not as educated on food safety as they should be. That’s why, if used properly, social media can play a pivotal role in improving the rhetoric. Social Media gives the food industry a platform to educate and engage with the public in a casual and accessible forum.
Managing misinformation during recalls and outbreaks, for example, is especially important. The spread of food-borne illness can be significantly reduced if the public is informed early and thoroughly. Thus, it is crucial that food companies and industry organizations are equipped before a crisis with strategies, educational materials, messages, and a social media management plan to counter misinformation and preserve your brand.
If managed properly, a recall can be a constructive learning experience. But if managed poorly, the damage of a recall can be a devastating blow to consumer confidence in a product or company and have serious financial consequences. In 2017, United Airlines received extremely negative attention from the media, and the public, for violently dragging a customer off an overbooked flight; a public relations nightmare ensued and the company suffered nearly $1 billion in losses as a result. However, if a company can harness social media to get ahead of the issue by being transparent and proactive, they have a much better chance of rebuilding consumer confidence later down the line.
The New Frontier
Social Media is at the forefront of innovative technologies used to combat food-borne illness. Data theorists believe monitoring social data can help teams recognize possible food contamination outbreaks by searching for anomalies in user-generated posts. For example: if ten people post about feeling sick after checking in to the same restaurant – that is an anomaly and should be examined. If companies, or food safety organizations, could harness this data, they would be able to detect potential outbreaks much faster and with far fewer resources.
Social Media is an opportunity for action. It is a strong tool for advocacy, communication, and education; and it offers the food industry a direct line of communication to a large, and engaged, audience. The possibilities are limitless. Companies need to lean in and embrace social media because if they don’t someone else will – and that person or company will be able to influence consumers and the industry in general.
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