Social media could enhance foodborne outbreak detection - report

By Mark Astley

- Last updated on GMT

Authorities could collect information on foodborne outbreaks from 'tweets'.
Authorities could collect information on foodborne outbreaks from 'tweets'.
“Rich data sources” like Twitter and Facebook could be utilised as a tool in the surveillance of foodborne disease outbreaks, according to a US study.

According to the research paper, The Potential Capability of Social Media as a Component of Food Safety and Food Terrorism Surveillance Systems,​ food safety authorities around the world could take advantage of social media platforms in the fight against foodborne outbreaks.

Detection algorithms could be designed to search for specific symptoms in the information published by individuals, the study said.

Use of the words diarrhoea, vomiting and fever may provide important early warning clues for foodborne disease outbreaks.

For example, symptoms such as ‘drooping eyes’ or ‘paralysis’ could be indications of foodborne disease botulism, said the research.

Protection of public health

Ryan Newkirk wrote the report while studying for a PhD at the University of Minnesota. He has since begun working in a post-doctorate position in at the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Food Safety Fellows Programme.

There are three main advantages to the use of social media as a surveillance system, according to Newkirk – timeliness, representativeness and the self-identification of outbreaks.

There are, however, limitations to the use of social media, he added.

“One limitation is how it is calibrated. These sites are built for communication, not as surveillance systems. There are some things that need to be worked at and some privacy issues that need to be worked out yet.”

“With the increased popularity of social media, with social media playing key roles in revolutions for example, we need to think about its use in food safety.”

“What this boils down to is the protection of public health.”

Enhance detection

Newkirk added that although he will not be pursuing the use of social media on behalf of the FSIS, the idea is likely to “gain traction”​ with other organisations.

According to the report, the sensitivity and timeliness of existing public health surveillance could be increased through exploiting the abilities of social media to link illnesses and exposures.

“Methods for analysing and interpreting social media data for indicators of intentional or unintentional foodborne disease outbreaks are not fully developed. However, components of social media- based surveillance systems could be designed to search for key words that may signal intentionally or unintentionally caused outbreaks.”

“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.”

“Augmenting existing surveillance systems with social media data may potentially translate into the reduction of morbidity and mortality related to food safety and intentional contamination events,” ​the report added.

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