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US state food safety ‘tweets’ will help prevent potentially lethal outbreaks - FSIS

By Mark Astley , 06-Mar-2012
Last updated on 06-Mar-2012 at 17:42 GMT2012-03-06T17:42:13Z

The Colorado-specific Twitter feed @CO_FSISAlert
The Colorado-specific Twitter feed @CO_FSISAlert

State-specific food safety ‘tweets’ will help US consumers identify affected products and prevent potentially lethal foodborne outbreaks, the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has claimed.

USDA under-secretary for food safety Dr Elizabeth Hagan told FoodQualityNews.com that through the introduction of new state-specific Twitter feeds it will improve its communication with consumers and its ability to protect the safety of the nation’s food.

The ‘tweets’ will alert followers about recalls of meat, poultry and processed egg products in their state.

New state-specific Twitter feeds for Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington have already been launched.

FoodQualityNews.com recently reported on a study that identified “rich data sources” such as Twitter and Facebook as potential tools for the surveillance of foodborne disease outbreaks.

According to the report, detection algorithms could be designed to search for specific symptoms in the information published by individuals.

Food safety – primary focus

“FSIS’ primary focus is preventing foodborne illness. One way we want to help accomplish that goal is to improve our ability to communicate timely and relevant information directly to consumers to help protect the safety of their food,” said Hagan.

“When food recalls occur, it is critical that we effectively communicate information to consumers to help them identify the affected products to prevent foodborne illness. Social media provides another valuable tool we can use to better communicate this information and protect consumers.”

Recalls are currently announced through news releases and the FSIS’ primary Twitter feed, @USDAFoodSafety, has more than 250,000 followers.

The Twitter platform for Colorado (@CO_FSISAlert), where the Jensen Farms cantaloupe-related listeriosis outbreak began in 2011, has tweeted once and currently has 27 followers.

“The benefit we are after is reducing foodborne illness, and we encourage people to sign up for these feeds so they can receive this information,” Hagan added.

“We believe social media can be a valuable tool to help inform the public, and we have invested significant resources to insuring we have interesting information for consumers via social media.”

“We are hopeful this initiative will prove to be an effective way to reach consumers and perhaps will open other social media avenues to explore,” she said.

Social media surveillance

The research paper, The Potential Capability of Social Media as a Component of Food Safety and Food Terrorism Surveillance Systems, detailed how social media platforms could be utilised in the fight against foodborne outbreaks.

Report author Ryan Newkirk, who now works in a post-doctorate position at the FSIS, previously told FoodQualityNews.com: “With the increased popularity of social media, with social media playing a key role in revolutions for example, we need to think about its use in food safety.”

The report, which was written by Newkirk while studying for a PhD, said: “Social media cannot replace traditional public health surveillance system components. However, the incorporation of existing social media into a public health surveillance system of systems may enhance early foodborne disease outbreak detection.”

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