CHICAGO — A billion people can’t be wrong, right?
As it turns out, when it comes to food safety it doesn’t matter if they’re wrong. Once a product is associated with foodborne illnesses on social media sites it’s like striking a match in a straw house. Negative posts, shares, and retweets can burn a brand or a commodity with a few million clicks that are heard around the world.
“You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to use it. But you can’t ignore it. Social media is here,” Patrick Quade of iwaspoisoned.com said during a Wednesday session at the 20th annual Food Safety Summit.
Quade founded the crowdsourcing website a few years ago after he got food poisoning from a sandwich wrap he bought at a restaurant. The site now gets hundreds of thousands of views every month. Consumer reports of foodborne illnesses on iwaspoisoned.com helped public health officials spot the outbreaks traced to Chipotle in 2015.
Clusters of reports from customers of other restaurants, college cafeterias, and other foodservice operations continue to help detect and sometimes limit foodborne illness outbreaks. But Quade’s eyes are wide open when it comes to the perceived value of data generated from online sources.
“If it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen, right,” Quade quipped, quickly reminding the food safety professionals and researchers at the summit session that food safety is not a laughing matter.
Mining the big data generated by users of iwaspoisoned.com is a daunting task, but Quade is finding facts that the food industry just can’t ignore. One surprising tidbit he shared showed how common beliefs can be shattered by bits gleaned from the countless bytes of data he reviews.
“You might expect that (restaurant) chains with more locations would have more reports, but that’s not what the data shows,” Quade said.
Those kinds of facts are hard to argue with once Quade explains the extreme vetting process he and the iwaspoisoned.com staff use to weed out bogus reports from disgruntled employees, bored college students and internet trolls.
He said it’s not his goal or practice to draw conclusions from the data, though. The goal is to raise awareness and reduce food poisoning incidents by sharing the massive amounts of information his website collects with the government, academia, and industry.
That kind of data sharing is also top of mind for Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety and several related operational divisions for Costco Wholesale Corp.
Like Quade’s website, Costco has access to an enormous amount of data from its 95 million consumer members. Wilson said the information is wide-ranging, but for the audience at the Food Safety Summit he focused on what the mega-chain does with data from foodborne illness reports from its customers.
“We do not hide any data from any regulatory entity,” Wilson said. “If you call us and say our food made you sick we share that information, if we have your permission, to help public health catch outbreaks quicker.”
But mountains of details don’t mean anything until they are crunched into manageable mouthfuls of meaningful information, Wilson said. One way the food industry can use big data is to track individual ingredients. He used the deadly 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak that was traced to peanut butter and other peanut products from the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).
Wilson said transparent data could have helped many food companies downstream from PCA avoid recalls of their own products.
“There was no traceability,” Wilson said of the PCA products. “How did you know if that peanut in your granola bar came from PCA? I’ll give you the technical answer to that ‘S**t, I don’t know.’
“That means you recall (your product).”
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