From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, February/March 2014

Social Media Stirs the Pot

by Linda L. Leake, MS

Social Media Stirs the Pot

Did you ever open a can of food and see something you thought might be a dead rat on top?

That was the experience of an Ohio woman when she opened a can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti & Meatballs one day in 2010 and spied a large gray mass atop the entree.

The woman contacted ConAgra Foods, the Omaha, Neb.-based company that makes and sells food under various brand names, including Chef Boyardee, its signature canned ready-to-eat pasta products. ConAgra Foods asked this consumer to photograph and then freeze the can’s contents, and they also sent a courier to pick up the contaminated product.

Laboratory tests demonstrated the mass was actually a big blob of mold likely caused as a result of damage to the can during shipping that allowed air to enter the can. Even though the blob was not a rat, it was initially perceived as a rat by a consumer, and that opened up a whole can of worms for ConAgra Foods.

It seems the aforementioned woman’s nephew had filmed the can contents and posted the video on the social media sensation YouTube, complete with the verbal consumer rodent speculation. Within 48 hours, social media impressions soared as a result of retweets by heavy influencers.

This posting of the Chef Boyardee can contents on the Internet prompted ConAgra Foods to act fast to correct the misconception about the gray mass’ identity.

Food Safety’s Social Media Presence


Inspired by the incident, the company incorporated a more aggressive social strategy that has become an exemplary pacesetter for the food industry.

“The social strategy is based on a partnership with our Public Relations, Communication & External Relations, and Consumer Affairs teams,” says Jeanne Jones, consumer affairs director for ConAgra Foods. “Each department plays a strategic role, aligned with the team’s role within the organization. The Consumer Affairs team, as a part of the larger Food Safety and Quality organization, uses social media specifically to monitor and engage consumers on the topics of food safety, quality, and consumer education. If we see a consumer posting about anything that we would normally address via our traditional channels, namely phone, email, letter, then we engage or monitor appropriately.”

ConAgra Foods set up an "auto alert" system to let staff internally know of any potential issue. “We learned to better communicate with our consumers and we implemented a process emphasizing trust and transparency,” Jones relates.

“Our Consumer Affairs team has been utilizing social media to emphasize food safety since we began engaging with consumers in social channels in 2010,” Jones continues. “We take every opportunity we can to educate consumers on food safety through responding to social posts, linking to information, and taking consumers “off-line” to verbally discuss potential food safety risks in more detail. Examples include stressing the importance of following cooking instructions, using a food safety thermometer, proper storage of food, and safe handling during preparation.”

As part of its dynamic and proactive social media strategy, ConAgra Foods now uses an assortment of social listening and monitoring software and services. Most notably, a tool called Astute SRM (Social Response Management) is key for social listening and response within the ConAgra Foods consumer affairs department. Astute SRM is monitoring software that pulls all contacts for any topic(s) one chooses from millions of websites including Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. Posts are then pulled in and analyzed to determine if the sentiment is positive, negative, or neutral.

The system will “push” the contacts to a company’s social media employees based on how they are set up to be handled (escalate, flag, note, ignore). Employees can then engage, comment, ask questions, or request the person posting to take the conversation off line.

“Astute SRM complements our CRM (customer relationship management) software that we use to log all of our traditional contacts that come in via mail, phone, or letter,” Jones explains. “This software has the capability to automatically integrate the social media contacts into our CRM system, which is key to enabling line of sight to emerging trends and enhancing risk mitigation.

“The integration capability also allows us to differentiate, through our extensive back end data analysis, how the behaviors and feedback in social channels differ from our traditional channels,” Jones adds. “We can then use these insights to better predict the behaviors, and validate that our products are being used as intended. When it comes to food safety, the ability to quickly spot an emerging trend and ensure your products are being used as intended are critical.”

Monitoring is happening 24/7, Jones emphasizes. “The system is set up to flag certain brands and key words to serve as triggers, and if there is any “hit” on a brand and/or key word it will send an alert to the employees who monitor for us so they can respond real time,” she says. “Alerts can be set up to come in as a text message, email, instant message, or directly into the CRM tool.”

ConAgra Foods is using social media to mitigate risk through applying the same approaches in social channels as the company does in its traditional channels. Thus, emerging trends are quickly identified and responded to by applying CAPA (corrective action preventative action) processes and continuous improvement methodologies. Moreover, utilization of data and analytics drive actionable insights, as social media contacts are integrated in ConAgra Foods’ consumer contact data.

“We value relentless improvement, and are consistently working to deliver a better experience to our consumers through social engagement and new technologies,” Jones says. She is quick to point out that, to that end, ConAgra Foods consistently applies principles it calls the Four Rs in all consumer interactions. The company developed these principles, Respect, Remorse, Resolution, Restitution, as a result of inspiration from Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity.

“Good use of social media contributes to the top line and bottom line of our company by ensuring we adequately resolve all consumer issues, retain consumers we may have otherwise lost and deliver an exceptional experience that will be shared in a positive way to drive incremental sales and loyalty,” Jones points out. “We’re getting positive feedback and we’re creating loyalty with our brands, which means we’re boosting sales and our bottom line, with every social interaction we have.”

Taking a very proactive, transparent approach to social media allows ConAgra Foods to not only mitigate risk, but also build trust with consumers, Jones says. “The impact is zero high-visibility social escalations and less of a chance of viral videos with erroneous information,” she emphasizes.

What does the future hold for using social media to communicate about or deal with food safety issues?

“For food recalls, the food industry should embrace social media to demonstrate transparency and provide consumers with information they need to stay safe,” Jones advises. “As an example, we proactively post recall announcements on relevant social media sites. Consumers have responded favorably to this, indicating a positive impact on trust and transparency.”

Academia Examples

Embracing all the hot, trendy Internet-driven social media forms of communicating, including blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, Benjamin Chapman, PhD, an extension specialist in food safety at North Carolina State University, launched the citizen food safety project in September 2013. The project goals are to find out what food safety means to people, raise the public consciousness of food safety, and build the public’s support for better food safety practices.

To that end, Dr. Chapman is inviting folks to take photos that demonstrate what they believe to be food safety issues, including positive examples and those perceived as health risks or yuck factors encountered at home, markets, stores and restaurants, and post them to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #citizenfoodsafety. A key tool Dr. Chapman is using to solicit photos is barfblog, a food safety blog ( with some 7,000 subscribers to which he regularly contributes commentary, videos, PowerPoint presentations, and podcasts.

Social Eye Openers at a Glance

  • Twitter has 230 million active users.
  • There are 1 billion tweets every two days.
  • Instagram has 130 million+ total users.
  • Facebook has 1.15 billion+ total users.
  • There are over 1 billion unique monthly visitors on YouTube.
  • YouTube reaches more U.S. adults aged 18 to 34 than any cable network.
  • Food is the top category on Pinterest, with 57 percent discussing food-related content.
  • 4.2 billion people use mobile devices to access social media sites.
  • Social Media has overtaken porn as the No. 1 activity on the web.


As of mid-December, Dr. Chapman has received about 140 photos from some 40 individuals via Twitter (, Instagram (barfblogben) or email ( Photos received to date include apples in an orchard lying on the ground, salads with sprouts, and a dirty toilet at a truck stop.

As Dr. Chapman collects photos from social media sites, he is sharing them indefinitely on a Tumblr site (

“Our audience is the online community, which includes all citizens of the eating world, including consumers, students, and food safety proponents,” Dr. Chapman relates. “If we are going to continue to make progress in food safety, we must engage all people who eat, all citizen eaters.”

Using social media, Dr. Chapman is dedicated to sharing evidence-based information to people who are interested in food safety even if they don’t work in that area. “There’s an increased hunger and thirst for food safety information,” he says. “People want to be part of social media so they can get that information for themselves.”

Currently boasting 1,300 followers on his Twitter feed, the savvy Dr. Chapman is quick to admit that he was not quick to join this particular social media phenomenon. “At first, I thought Twitter was kind of dumb,” he admits. “I didn’t see what utility it offered. But as I used Twitter more, I realized this networking system gets news out a lot quicker than other traditional media alerts.”

Social Media Research

Under Dr. Chapman’s leadership, NCSU graduate student Ben Raymond is pursuing a social media research project as part of a Master of Science in Food Science program.

For starters, Raymond is looking at the food safety practices of people featured in cooking videos posted on YouTube and the potential impact of these practices on consumers who view the videos.

“Our hypothesis is that users on YouTube are demonstrating poor food safety practices,” Raymond says. “Since YouTube provides the number of viewers of all videos, we can see how many people may not be learning food safety behaviors that will keep them from getting sick.”

Raymond conducted an online survey to determine how people search for YouTube food safety videos, then he looked at the most relevant videos based on his survey results that revealed where such videos show up in a search and how many views they have.

“Our goal is to see what people are learning online,” Raymond relates. “Unfortunately, it appears they are not learning positive food safety behaviors because cooks in videos are demonstrating risky behaviors. For example, we observed people using a thermometer in only one of 89 videos, and good solid cross contamination was demonstrated in two-thirds of the videos. Only one video told people how to correctly determine if hamburger is done.”

Raymond contends that if you watch a cooking show or demonstration online, any improper temperature the cook uses is not seen on the show. How to use a food thermometer or avoid cross contamination is not explained, so it is unlikely that the viewer will learn positive food safety behaviors watching online cooking videos.

“The conclusion is that people are learning negative behaviors by watching YouTube videos, especially those that demonstrate how to cook hamburgers,” Raymond says, “because the people demonstrating how to prepare hamburgers often cook them rare, not to mention they also make a plethora of other food safety mistakes. The reality is that there is so little awareness of food safety in YouTube videos and sometimes there is even disdain for good food safety practices.”

His project data analysis is in progress, but based on his research to date, Raymond believes that, if you see a cooking video online you should consider that the practices are likely not healthy. So, he wonders, how do you convince the public that what they are seeing is not best for consumers?

“What can be done to address this issue is a challenge,” Raymond emphasizes. “How to use social media to reach an audience with positive food safety messages is not always understood. We can make a great video, but can we get anyone to watch it? That’s our task.”

Raymond is also engaging online “mommy bloggers” relative to the subject of norovirus. “I am trying to organize and conduct a focus group of these bloggers,” he says. “I have to determine who they are, what their interests and priorities are, how to reach out to them and what I want them to know about norovirus.”

Raymond hopes to convey how norovirus goes through a school, what can be done about it, how the virus can be spread to high risk groups, how to mitigate the risks, and how to clean up after an outbreak.

To that end, he is looking at the impact of online messaging campaigns. “Foremost, mommy bloggers are concerned about the often emotional topics of children’s health and well-being,” Raymond says. “So researchers need to identify knowledge gaps and the best ways to fill them. I suggest that researchers need to learn the soft, fuzzy stuff first, especially in this instance, before moving onto more traditional research methods.”

Disseminating food safety messages online is really about outreach and fostering a sense of trust, Raymond advises. ”Social media helps food safety professionals get the message out to others not reachable by other media,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there watching this stuff.”

Getting involved with social media yourself is the first step in sharing ideas and information to this audience, Raymond emphasizes. “To get started, sign up for a Twitter account,” he recommends. “I was hesitant at first but I made the leap. I sometimes find myself spending too much time on Twitter, but overall it has proven to be entertaining and useful. I learn about current events, be it a food recall, or natural disaster, on Twitter, well before most other media sources. Finding the right people to follow and learning the nuances of the service are key to enhancing your experience.”

Expanding Government Reach

A “one-stop shop” for consumer information on food safety sums up, the gateway to food safety information provided by government agencies.

The USDA, FDA, and CDC collaboratively provide this vibrant consumer-friendly site that employs a number of social media tools to distribute food safety messages to diverse audiences.

Along with Facebook and Twitter, the agencies employ dynamic technologies that include e-cards, YouTube videos, podcasts, blogs, Web pages optimized for mobile phones, text messaging services, email alerts, and widgets.

“Social media from FSIS’ standpoint is really about customer service,” says Catherine Cochran, a public affairs specialist with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). “These platforms allow us to listen and deliver food safety messages to the public in real time and in ways that people are used to receiving information. Mobile services, like our Ask Karen app and mobile website, are becoming a major priority as we continue to improve our public health communications with consumers.”

Leake is a food safety consultant, auditor and award-winning journalist based in Wilmington, N.C. Reach her at



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