The citizen food safety project

The Internet is a fun place to experiment. With food. Or at least food safety. #citizenfoodsafety is our attempt to jump into the game of smartphone food porn/voyeurism. The following guest blog post explaining the origin and goals of the project was originally published at Scientific American.Cooking-brats-citizenfoodsafety-1

A walk through the farmers market, grocery store or restaurant will provide a glance into a not-so-new but increasingly prevalent subculture: cataloging food porn through smartphone cameras. Even the guys at the table beside me at a food court in O’Hare airport are taking pictures of their lunch and texting/tweeting/instagramming. Someone on a phone elsewhere is probably viewing the output and commenting.

The Interwebs continue to demonstrate that pictures and visuals matter. The clearest of messages in text can’t always describe what’s really happening. And when it comes to food safety, there’s a lot happening out there. Food safety voyeurism isn’t new, but the technology has changed. It’s been done with restaurant restrooms, grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

Almost a decade ago a group of keen public health folks in South Korea created the Sikparazzi movement. The program encouraged citizens eating at restaurants to take pictures of food sanitation infractions (cockroaches or cross-contamination) and send the visuals to health inspectors who would follow-up, and in some cases, assess a fine in response. In 2008 a second group of clever health folks in the UK followed suit and there have been multiple examples of pests-gone-wild in New York and Toronto being caught on smartphones – and shared through the Internet.

To participate, engage and utilize the world of food picture snapping we’ve started a project, citizen food safety, aimed at sharing visuals of food safety in the broadest of terms. Whether it’s rats, handwashing, pesticides, the mythical 5-second-rule or a dude eating Ramen noodles out of a bowl he made with his beard hair, we’re looking to curate a repository of what food safety means to the online world. This isn’t just for the food safety nerds; it’s for the Internet’s population of eaters: the regular folks who shop, cook and eat.

Good practices (like proper glove use, information on menus, food safety marketed to consumers, thermometer use) and bad ones (like cross-contamination, nose picking, temperature abuse, babies being changed on restaurant tables) are all in play.

To get in on the fun tweet or instagram a picture tagged with #citizenfoodsafety. All pics will be added to a tumblr site. Follow me @benjaminchapman on twitter or barfblogben on Instagram to see the outputs.

Our project is about increasing dialogue and engagement around food safety issues. Some folks use the same tools for other means, including undocumented business ventures like blackmail.

According to a EIN news desk report a Shandong is facing a five month jail term after snapping #citizenfoodsafety-like shots of a fancy food restaurant and then demanding money from the owners in exchange for the photos.

A Shandong native has been sentenced to five months jail time and fined 1,000 yuan for trying to blackmail a local restaurant. He allegedly went undercover and photographed food safety hazards around the eatery before refusing to cough up the pics unless the restaurant paid him a percentage of their earnings.

The defendant bought a set of hidden cameras and came to Shanghai. He successfully applied for a job at a high-end restaurant in Jing’an district on June 21. He secretly videoed the kitchen while working, collecting images of cockroaches and evidence that members lacked health permits.

Three days later, the man came back to the restaurant and said he would go to the media with the images unless the manager paid him 20 percent of the restaurant’s daily revenue. The manager asked his staff to call the police.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.
  • Interested in both food safety and brand protection

    Can we trust consumers to accurately recognize food safety risks and not promote damage to a brands’ reputation based on their lack of knowledge? For example, you mention proper glove use as a good practice. Bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods is permitted in Canada but many Canadians think that if a food handler is not wearing gloves then the food is not safe. Do most people know that food handlers should wash their hands before putting on gloves and between glove changes? Do they watch to see if the food handler uses their gloved hand to scratch their face or pick up something that fell on the ground? This is only one example but I am not convinced that people should be encouraged to share their ‘food safety findings’ with the world through social media. I see value in having a domain for people to share food safety concerns but I think our energies would be better directed to encouraging people to contact their local health department with concerns. With that being said, food safety professionals have a responsibility to educate the public about food safety so that the public can become more knowledgeable about what is safe and what is not.

    • Ben Chapman

      The goal of the project is to capture what the camera-phone yielding individual sees as food safety, in the broadest sense – to encourage dialogue. Whether the picture shows a risk factor or not is up for debate and I hope that people who follow the project will jump into the discussion with the pic snapper to talk about the concerns you’ve brought up.

  • Randy Lyons

    I agree with both the article and the comment. Can we trust the public to know whathey are actually taking a picture of? No! Of course not. But it does give us the chance to educate them. Some times the pictures can help the business. I remember a picture form a Barfblog posting awhile ago that showed a mouse on a counter in the middle of the night. Did the owner know there was an issue? I do have concerns on these types of ventures as they are open to abuse and thought alot about it before responding. I think it is resonable to have this point of view. Just as some reporters abuse their “freedom of speech”, so shall some persons abuse the intent of this project. The internet is ripe with abuse and some people honestly believe it is a place, and their right, where they can say and do anything they like. We all know this, so those of us who may have greater knowledge in the subject matter need to be vigilant to this. Open and honest discussion is never a bad thing, but when one uses it as a form for personal reasons, things can go bad very quickly. I believe the project is for the better good and trust that Dr. Chapman and his associates will moderate the forum to ensure the project can withstand scrutiny by all of us.