Everything changed in 1993.

That year’s deadly Jack in the Box outbreak set the tone for how the media has covered most outbreaks and recalls since, creating a new awareness for food safety. Events such as the Chipotle Mexican Grill outbreaks and multiple incidents with romaine lettuce highlight the fact that the media covers these food concerns more and with greater accuracy.

As social media has become a part of our lives, food safety reporting has migrated there, making it more accessible to consumers.

At any point, you might see playful TikTok videos and Twitter posts from companies hoping to market their products, to Instagrammed sourdough bread or a LinkedIn story containing leadership tips du jour.

But there are also government agency warnings and announcements sent out via tweets, Facebook support groups for families dealing with the burden of foodborne illness or a treasure trove of political cartoons and viral memes about E. coli or recalled foods.

“The more we engage in dialogue about public health issues, the more likely we are to change our behaviors, become educated decision makers and build a culture of awareness,” said Dustin Harp, associate professor of communication and director of women’s and gender studies at University of Texas, Arlington.

In 2001, education writer and speaker Marc Prensky published “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” an article on technology and education, in which he distinguished between two groups of people based on whether they grew up with modern technology or not. He refers to the younger population, who grew up with modern technology, as “digital natives,” while referring to the older population, who didn’t, as “digital immigrants.”

Food safety and quality, like any other profession in 2022, is still made up of both groups. But in order to be part of the conversation, everyone needs to be able to participate.

“Younger generations pick up social media like a language,” said Deb Colameta, consultant and adjunct professor of communication at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies in Boston. “They are fluent in how to communicate on various new platforms, and to them it’s not rocket science, but more like a form of currency. Professionals with more experience on these platforms have a real handle on the complicated and secretive algorithms that make or break a brand or an individual who goes viral.”

Photo courtesy Darin Detwiler

Don’t Tread on Meme

In a personal essay, one writer looks at the evolution of memes and food safety.

Shortly after losing my son Riley to E. coliin 1993, I was in Los Angeles to meet with some TV and media executives to discuss how the story of food safety could be told to mainstream audiences. While there, I walked past a stand on the sidewalk selling souvenirs, including printed hats and shirts, when I came upon a shirt that parodied the recent Jack in the Box outbreak that claimed my son’s life. The shirt had a modified version of the restaurant’s logo, replacing “Jack” with “Crap” and adding the phrase “Burgers to die for!”

At the time, I was surprised, angered and confused by the idea that the outbreak could be so casually parodied. But I now realize what I saw was a food safety meme before memes existed.

We have all seen memes — the humorous illustrations or photos with a text overlay spread rapidly on the internet. A simple online search for food safety or foodborne pathogen memes reveals many examples related to romaine lettuce, E. coli, Salmonella and various outbreaks. These memes use images familiar to most internet-savvy users: “Success Kid,” “Skeptical Kid,” “Nerdy Teen,” Willy Wonka, Oprah, Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Kermit the Frog and more.

“Any time you post something that strikes a nerve or gains an audience, it collects likes, favorites, comments and reposts,” said Deb Colameta, consultant and adjunct professor of communication at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies in Boston. “Today, nearly all social media platforms’ algorithms are set up to reward any kind of engagement — even if audiences disagree with the intent of the original post.”

I can easily see how a grieving parent, having lost a child to a failure in food safety, could see a meme like this as childish or inappropriate. Nobody wants to be the target of a joke. But could these memes be seen as a positive sign?

© ZinetroN | Adobe Stock

When I attend Food and Drug Administration public meetings, training and corporate events and conferences, I can gauge the reality of food safety awareness with that audience. But these aren’t as easy to access for the average consumer. For a real sense of how they relate to food safety, I turn to memes.

In order for memes to go viral, viewers must grasp the context and understand the subject. This is a critical element in the entire relationship between sender and receiver. The people who create or send memes related to food safety wouldn’t go through the effort if they did not think viewers would get it.

To me, these memes reflect a growing awareness and consumer culture around food safety. Good or bad, serious or funny, for or against food safety, these memes get people to acknowledge that outbreaks and recalls of food take place and that people can become sick and even die from pathogens. Many, especially younger audiences, often gain information through satire as it brings them into the conversation — just look at the popularity of “The Daily Show” or “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

Memes are not a source of facts, but they are evidence of what is on the minds of those outside the industry. A true food safety culture must include consumers. These memes provide a way for consumers to engage in grassroots discourse and demonstrate how pervasive this culture has become.

Crowd Control

Active social media and internet users can actually help identify foodborne illness outbreaks sooner, hopefully leading to less people becoming ill.

“Ate at Simi Valley Chipotle and ended up in the hospital for IV fluids and anti-nausea medication after 24 hours of vomiting” — 2015 post on iwaspoisoned.com

People usually interact with social media and the internet on three different levels. For most, a more passive use involves simply following a source. Some will interact more actively by subscribing or becoming a member. A smaller group interacts with social media in a more generative way through becoming a loyalist or an advocate.

That last, active group can actually play a role in shrinking the size of outbreaks and help steer larger preventive efforts by the food industry through the comment sections on sites such as Amazon and Yelp, or the crowdsourcing site iwaspoisoned.com, which lets users report suspected foodborne illnesses.

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that researchers found these sites provided enough information to identify previously unreported illnesses and outbreaks. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene worked with Columbia University and Yelp on a project to examine restaurant reviews on the site that referred to foodborne illness. Ultimately, three previously unreported restaurant-related outbreaks linked to 16 illnesses met the department’s outbreak investigation criteria. Furthermore, environmental inspections at restaurants identified in these outbreaks uncovered multiple food-handling violations.

A 2020 study in the journal Risk Analysis evaluated social media in terms of online discussions of consumer experiences and the use of text mining to rapidly search platforms such as iwaspoisoned.com and Amazon reviews for food safety hazards.

In fact, iwaspoisoned.com played a role in the exposure of the Chipotle Mexican Grill outbreaks.

On Aug. 22, 2015, KCBS-TV, the CBS News affiliate in Los Angeles, broke the news on the norovirus outbreak after learning that 11 Chipotle customers had posted on iwaspoisoned.com about becoming ill at the same restaurant during the same period of time.

Patrick Quade created iwaspoisoned.com in 2009 after he went through a painful, violent case of food poisoning. He described the platform as a consumer-led website for reporting suspected food poisoning or bad food experiences.

Today, the website reports more than 600,000 views per month between consumers, food companies and health officials, and has been noted as part of the detection of not only victims of foodborne illness, but also of outbreaks not previously reported. In recalling the 2015 Chipotle incident, Quade underscored the importance of victims speaking up to draw attention to the outbreak, potentially leading to less people becoming sick.

“My assumption is that without the people posting to the website, the situation with Chipotle [in Simi Valley] may not have gained the additional attention,” he said. “Because of the website, the media ran with it and really put pressure on the company and on environmental health.”

Engagement Debates

There are a lot of similarities, and some key differences, to how digital natives and digital immigrants engage with and use social media when it comes to food industry content. Two food safety professionals share their views.

Veronica Hislop, 25

Veronica Hislop views much of what she sees on social media regarding food safety as “stuffy, academic and not approachable to general audiences.”

“Food safety is so serious and text based,” she said. “Yes, this information is essential — so people don’t die — but social media posts about policies make it political. Images related to food safety are so serious, and the groups that put out this info need to know that it may not be seen as approachable to all audiences.”

Hislop, a food scientist, student, author and podcast host, recognizes the professional purposes some media platforms, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, offer by letting users share food safety information and education.

“It’s not bad to focus on food safety, but do younger audiences care?” she asked. “Recalls, allergens, transparency, food safety — these topics do not come up in conversation with my non-food peers and friends. Maybe these topics on social media work for 50-year-olds, but 25-year-olds never have conversations with others about food safety.”

Hislop shared that she uses her favorite style of art in her social media presence to make her accounts seem more of an interest than a professional activity. She also noted that, with the current climate of remote learning and working from home, social media has become a source of escapism.

“I started scaling back on social media in terms of food safety topics I am interested in,” Hislop said. “When it comes to the world today, there are too many compounding issues at once — heavy topics. The last thing I want to do is go on to social media to see more. I want to have fun, not learn about food safety recalls.”

She did offer insight on how to make the content more engaging.

“Why can’t content about food safety be fun — especially if you’re going to get people exposed to a topic — like what you see with Bill Nye,” she said. “Doom is not a way to get people inspired.”

Food safety needs a personality — even for such a serious topic.

“There may be a fit for food safety and social media,” Hislop said. “It might never be big, but there is a way. [Younger people] want to see real people who are on a journey, where the messages come from a perspective of: Here’s what I learned.”

Jill Stuber, 47

Jill Stuber talks proudly of her memories from her family’s farm in Wisconsin, milking cows at an early age. These were her first steps into the world of food safety when she was responsible for sanitation of the milk house. Her mom and dad were essentially small business owners on their farm. For them, networking was a way to learn and be a part of a farming community.

Today, Stuber is the founder of the Food Safety Coach. Her experience includes more than 20 years in various roles in food safety and quality for several multi-million-dollar food companies and food industry support companies.

Before starting her own business, she used Facebook to connect with friends and family. She began using LinkedIn to learn more about people in the profession and about potential clients. Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn became a thought-provoking platform where she connected with food safety and quality experts.

“I use LinkedIn and Facebook for sharing stories, networking and for event notification — say for announcing a workshop,” Stuber said. “LinkedIn is more of a focus area for food topics. It is where I look to expand, connect with people, learn new ideas and perspectives. Over the past year, these platforms have been an incredible way to meet people I would not have normally met — especially during the pandemic.”

Stuber has explored other platforms, such as Twitter, but said the question may not be: “Which platform should I be on?” Instead she advised to ask yourself: “How many should I be on?”

“We need to weigh convenience versus vulnerability. I don’t want to deal with the fear of missing out when juggling too many platforms,” she said. “Also, like in other situations, dilution is not the solution. The challenge is how to use social media effectively as a professional such that it is still meaningful. Ultimately, I choose to do well with a few platforms where I can communicate most thoughtfully.”

Social media and remote work tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have changed how we communicate professionally. All of this, Stuber said, gives us the opportunity to be more intentional about communication.

“I often think of some of the important questions that Priya Parker asks in her book, ‘The Art of Gathering,’ ” Stuber said. “Questions such as: ‘Why are we getting together?’ ‘What do you hope the experience gives people?’ ‘What is the intention?’ Whatever means we use for professional communication, we must always be mindful of purpose.”