STILLWATER, Okla. — Social media carries more weight in managing food recalls than originally believed, according to recent Oklahoma State University research.
The findings could have implications on how the agricultural industry and policymakers shape more effective risk communications and deal with related market impacts, said Courtney Bir, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Oklahoma State University Extension specialist.
Recall announcements by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety Inspection and Service (FSIS) are obviously significant communication tools to reach the public, Bir said. Nevertheless, previous research has shown that effects of such recalls on consumer demand are small.
Bir and her peers turned to social media analytics for insight into public awareness about food safety-related incidents to help understand how the public interacts with such news. The study focused on food safety recalls and initial announcements of foodborne illness outbreaks as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The data suggest that recall announcements by the FDA and FSIS might not directly induce changes in consumer behavior, but illness reports from the CDC may. The former agencies don’t seem to generate social media posts at the same volume because the primary role of the FDA and FSIS is to get unsafe food off grocery shelves. By comparison, social media about actual cases of sickness seem to catch the public’s attention at a higher rate.
“The information often gets circulated even before a recall is issued and the food is pulled off the shelf,” she said. “By the time that action takes place, people aren’t even talking about the issue that much anymore.”
That trend is also important to people selling the product, because consumers might react against larger or smaller categories of food without knowing pertinent details. Early warnings might not identify contamination of specific brands of romaine lettuce, for example, so people will stop buying all labels or all types of the leafy vegetable.
“These results show that businesses and producers might want to monitor social media more closely and consider how it affects them to get ahead of public relations problems,” she said.
Bir said further research is needed to examine how foodborne illness outbreak investigations and the government’s management of food-related crises affect market demand in light of the changing landscape of public information.
Other researchers involved in the study were Jinho Jung, Nicole Olynk Widmar and Peter Sayal of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics in Indiana.
–Oklahoma State University
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