Social media is no longer just a means of recreational and commercial communication, it has also become a valuable tool that the food authorities are keen to utilise in order to detect food safety breaches.
What role will social media play?
Users of social media platforms, such as Yelp and Twitter, have been found to report cases of foodborne illness in percentages almost equal to those actually reported to local food authorities.
While the actual number of cases of foodborne illness are significantly under-reported to food authorities each year, it has been discovered that social media users will often relay their food poisoning woes to their Yelp and Twitter followers.
Health officials have found that tapping into these feeds will allow them to detect early cases of foodborne outbreaks and enable them to more easily track cases to food providers within the affected area.
Restaurant reviews provided through social media have also proven to play a key role in detecting early cases of foodborne illnesses and food safety violations. Officials have found that finding patterns in reviews questioning a specific restaurant’s food safety practices enables them to quickly pinpoint the specific source of an outbreak, without having to audit a larger number of restaurants within the affliction radius.
Experts agree that “when three to five customers of the same restaurant all go online to complain about getting sick, it might be a good indication that health officials should look into the situation”.
One step further
The development of algorithms to filter social media posts and reviews relating to foodborne illnesses is also currently underway. Algorithms will be coded to detect key terms such as ‘food poisoning’ as well as related symptoms like ‘diarrhoea’ and ‘vomiting’ in live Yelp and Twitter feeds. Once completed, the algorithm will instantly filter social media updates relating to the established terms, allowing food authorities to see patterns early on and audit providers in the area for food safety practices before the outbreak spreads.
Currently, the development of algorithms faces the obvious issue of privacy settings amongst social media users. It is imperative that means to bypass these privacy settings are found in order for officials to access the greatest number of informal reports relating to the issue of local food safety.
Previously, action could not be taken until a number of formal reports indicated a pattern in a specific area. By this time, it was likely that a significantly greater number of people would have been afflicted and the area of affliction broader, making it more difficult to track the original source of the outbreak.
Receiving reports through social media will take far less time than using conventional methods, and will enable health officials to be both more efficient and more effective in tracking and halting foodborne illnesses in the early stages. Allowing them to maintain a higher level of food safety throughout Australia.