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Researchers Are Screening Social Media to Help Identify Foodborne Illness

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Key Takeaways

  • Using information found online via posts and reviews can help researchers identify foodborne illness outbreaks, according to a recent study. 
  • Foodborne illness is a major concern in the United States, and exposure to contaminated food can result in outcomes like diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Although foodborne illness outbreaks occur every year, many go unreported.

Consumer online posts and content can help identify food safety concerns, and possibly reduce the risk of a foodborne illness, according to new research.

According to a paper published in December 2020 in the journal Risk Analysis, researchers implemented text mining techniques to use online media as a source of potential information for surveillance in the food industry. To do so, they gathered a large data set of consumer reviews from Amazon in which consumers posted about their experiences with grocery and canned goods products. In addition, they supplemented this data set with information from IWasPoisoned.com, a website where consumers can alert others to cases of food poisoning. 

Text Mining

Text mining refers to the process of using automated methods to derive information from things like social media posts and product reviews. From there, information can be sorted into categories for analysis.  

Researchers then generated “smoke terms”—think diarrhea, fever, and vomitingthat trigger the program and allow experts to quickly read a user's post for analysis.

The researchers believe this technique would improve monitoring of product quality and potentially mitigate potential risks, as the current methods to monitor food safety risks and outbreaks are far from perfect. 

“As a registered dietitian nutritionist who used to oversee the food safety of 21 dining restaurants across a large college campus, it's encouraging to see early research presented like this that may help educate and inform food safety specialists about a potential foodborne outbreak,” Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT, a California-based registered dietitian and co-author of The Air Fryer Cookbook For Dummies, tells Verywell. “As with anything in its early infancy, there are likely going to be struggles this software presents that need to be addressed before unnecessary fear is placed in the hands of the public at large."

So, until all of the kinks are worked out, this program will likely not be a solution for the general public. However, it is promising to see a viable detection program on the horizon. 

What This Means For You

An online tool to help identify foodborne illness may be available in the future according to this data. Until it rolls out to the public for use, certain precautions should be taken to keep yourself healthy. Cooking meats thoroughly, washing produce before consumption, and staying up-to-date on any food recalls (and complying if one arises) are all key steps to reducing the risk of becoming sick from a foodborne illness. 

Why is Food Safety a Concern?

An estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illness are contracted in the U.S. every year, resulting in approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. And even when contamination is reported, the challenge of tracking the origin of the problem exists, as many foods have multiple “touch-points” that are potential causes of exposure.  

There are certain populations that are more vulnerable to foodborne illnesses such as pregnant people due to a slightly suppressed immune system,” Ryann Kipping, RDN, CLEC, a California-based prenatal registered dietitian and author of The Feel Good Pregnancy Cookbook, tells Verywell. She explains that “while the incidence of something like listeriosis—the disease caused by listeria bacteria—is very rare, it is serious if a pregnant person were to contract it."

Other vulnerable populations include:

  • Adults age 65 and older
  • Young children
  • People with weak immune systems
  • Pregnant women

If a person accidentally consumes a potentially harmful bacteria, virus, or other pathogens, they can become extremely sick and experience symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. In extreme cases, death may occur. “Foodborne illness is not something to be taken lightly,” Shaw says. 

While illness can occur by undercooking food like chicken, many cases of foodborne illness are a result of contamination. Identifying harmful contamination and proactively alerting the public can save people from experiencing the unpleasant, and sometimes, scary effects of eating food that contains potentially harmful organisms. 

Reducing Your Risk of Foodborne Illness

While there is no perfect solution to avoiding foodborne illness exposure, there are some steps you can take to stay as safe as you can. 

"The food category that causes the most foodborne illness outbreaks is produce, like fruits and vegetables," Kipping says. She explains that each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps a running list of the known foodborne illness outbreaks. Some sort of leafy green makes the list every year, meaning that this type of food is a frequent foodborne illness carrier. 

“It also seems that ‘ready-to-eat’ foods such as pre-cut fruits, pre-cut vegetables, and packaged salads even things like chicken salad are common culprits of foodborne illnesses," Kipping says. "After produce, common items include raw shellfish, raw dairy, deli meats, and ground meat." 

Being cautious of these “usual suspects” is a great first step. These items do not need to be avoided but should be consumed with caution, and extra steps to ensure your safety should be taken—like making sure produce is washed and meats are fully cooked before consumption.

In the future, we may have programs like the one described in the current study available at our fingertips. Until then, proper food handling and cooking while staying up-to-date on any food recall is your best bet for safety.

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  1. Goldberg DM, Khan S, Zaman N, Gruss RJ, Abrahams AS. Text mining approaches for postmarket food safety surveillance using online mediaRisk Anal. 2020 Dec 12. doi:10.1111/risa.13651

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Foodborne germs and illness. Updated March 18, 2020.