CANADA – In the ever-evolving landscape of food safety, public health professionals and regulators are turning to the power of crowdsourced data from social networking platforms to detect and combat outbreaks.

However, a recent session at the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) conference shed light on the complexities and challenges of relying on such data for foodborne illness investigations, records Food Safety News.

Jennifer Beal from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Laura Gieraltowski from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Anna Manore from the Public Health Agency of Canada, presented their perspectives on the use of crowdsourced data in outbreak investigations.

Social networking websites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, along with specialized platforms like, have become hotspots for people to report their experiences with foodborne illnesses.

Crowdsourcing data offers promising advantages, including enhanced data collection, community engagement, real-time monitoring of food safety hazards, and a cost-effective approach to data gathering.

Platforms like ProMED-mail, Twitter, and have already played crucial roles in identifying outbreaks and acting as early warning systems.

Despite the potential benefits, relying on crowdsourced data comes with its share of pitfalls. Posts on these open platforms vary widely in format and content, making it challenging to determine the accuracy of information and interpret the data effectively.

Anonymous posts further complicate the investigation process, as contacting and verifying information with consumers becomes difficult.

Data quality, privacy concerns dilemma

One significant concern is the quality of data collected, as information is provided by complainants and may not follow standardized formats.

Additionally, privacy concerns arise due to the open nature of these platforms, which may lead to participant biases and misinformation. The presence of bots on social media further skews data, adding another layer of complexity to the investigation process.

The session discussed a real-life example of people reporting illness on after consuming Lucky Charms cereal in 2022.

The case highlighted the challenges faced at various stages of the investigation, from case definition and identifying the outbreak vehicle to implementing control measures and communicating unknowns.

The FDA’s involvement in crowdsourced or non-traditional data types further turns the traditional investigative process upside down.

Anna Manore shared the use of online surveys in outbreak investigations, emphasizing the importance of considering such data alongside other available evidence from epidemiological, food safety, traceback, and lab investigations.

The complexity of identifying the outbreak vehicle and the agent involved adds to the challenges.

Call for collaboration and caution

As the food industry and regulatory agencies explore the potential of crowdsourced data, experts advocate for a collaborative approach and urge caution.

Crowdsourcing can serve as a valuable tool in early warning systems, but it must be supplemented with robust data collection and verification methods to ensure accuracy and reliability.

While the power of social media and online platforms can contribute to improved food safety surveillance, the session concluded that effective outbreak investigations will require a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach.

Striking a balance between harnessing the potential of crowdsourced data and addressing its limitations will be the key to securing a safer and healthier food supply for all.

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