Food Watchdog Using Social Media To Spot Illness Outbreaks

Lawyers Praise Strategy To Identify Worrying Trends

12.11.2015

Oliver Wicks, Press Officer | 0114 274 4649

The use of social media to monitor unacceptable food hygiene and sickness outbreaks is a welcome step although care must be taken with the data which is acquired, according to public health experts at Irwin Mitchell.
 
The Food Standards Agency have revealed that they have started to monitor posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to see when there is a spike in the number of people talking about food safety issues across the country.
 
By reviewing the latest hashtags, posts and Twitter handles for words and pictures that relate to food hygiene concerns, they can quickly see if and where there is a widespread issue and investigate it immediately.
 
If the claims are substantial then the food watchdog could issue a health warning and pass the data onto the NHS to prepare hospitals, doctors and the general public for any possible outbreak.
 
Professor Guy Poppy, chief scientific adviser to the Food Standards Authority, said the watchdog had "proved" it could use social media as an "early warning system", and added: “You could detect norovirus outbreaks up to two weeks before Public Health England picked up the epidemiological outbreak.”
 
The restaurant review site Yelp has also been used to track food poisoning in the past by flagging words like sick, vomit, and diarrhoea. In 2014, Yelp reviews led to over 900 cases being uncovered and reported to public health officials.
 
Irwin Mitchell’s expert Public Health team have represented thousands of people who have suffered serious health issues as a result of gastric illnesses and food poisoning and know how serious the ramifications can be, especially if it leads to an outbreak.

Expert Opinion
“The seriousness of food hygiene illnesses cannot be underestimated and often in these cases the longer it takes to uncover the greater the risk to the general public.

“As usual with social media there are significant benefits and potential pitfalls to using these platforms, but they offer a great opportunity to discover what people are talking about and in the case of food hygiene investigate any complaints of vomiting, diarrhoea or other possible symptoms.

“In 2013 we represented a large group of people who fell ill after attending a Street Spice food festival in Newcastle. If this happened today, at an event or a restaurant or takeaway, then it is likely that the victims would take to social media which would now be picked up and investigated immediately by the Food Standards Agency.

“Clearly however it is important that the food watchdog monitors social media with caution and has guidelines on the type of posts to investigate and which to ignore.

“There are thousands of fake accounts and factually incorrect tweets on Twitter alone and if people are aware that monitoring is taking place then they could attempt to utilise this to sabotage rival businesses, create negative publicity or waste the Food Standards Agency’s time.”
Amandeep Dhillon, Partner