Airbnb tests moving hosts into the commercial restaurant business

I’m often in awe of and embrace the democracy of the Internet. Between social activism, crowdsourcing, community building and business niches, the interconnectivity is fascinating – and sometimes enters into the food risk world.

In 2012, pink slime wasn’t really a thing until thousands shared outrage on Facebook and Twitter. Yelp has recently been used to track outbreaks, and folks have developed apps for food waste-limiting leftover sharing.

UPTOWN-Airbnb-LogoIn fall 2013 developer Dan Newman created LeftoverSwap as a way for folks to share extra meatloaf or chicken casserole with others in their location. At the time of release, Newman addressed the possibility that traded leftovers could lead to illnesses, hoping that like with Craigslist people would use common sense.

LeftoverSwap’s model isn’t based on selling food though, which creates some regulatory issues.

Airbnb, an online service created to connect travelers with regular folks who have extra bedrooms, for a fee, appears to be moving into a new realm – their hosts may start advertising making meals. According to Reuters, Airbnb has been testing this selling-meals-to-strangers-staying-in-my-home concept in San Franscisco.

Airbnb is encouraging hosts to throw dinners for strangers as part of a new pilot program in its home city. The company would take a cut of the proceeds, similar to how it makes money from its core business of letting people list spare bedrooms or homes on its website.

The startup began inviting hosts in San Francisco to participate in the dining pilot on Tuesday. A listing for one of the pilot dinners charged $25 per person for a three-course meal.

Uh oh, the hosts are entering a food-for-pay situation that in pretty much every jurisdiction requires some form of permitting, food safety inspection and in many locales would make the amateur hotelier an amateur restaurant owner as well.

Salon’s Andrew Leonard captures some of the issues,

Let’s take a moment to review why commercial food service is regulated. The profit incentive motivates restaurateurs to keep costs down. Such costs might include paying people to scrub your kitchen floors, or ensuring that you are always purchasing the highest-quality ingredients. Because, you know, you don’t want people getting sick because there are rats in the pantry or because the cut-rate chicken you picked up wholesale is infected with salmonella. Food safety regulations exist for obvious reasons! Airbnb’s new program is just one outbreak of food poisoning away from a nasty lawsuit.

Others can debate the legality of the situation (and how to work within the regs); all I care about is whether hosts have the know-how and tools to manage food safety – and effectively do it. And that the paying public knows there may be risks.

Part of the solution is working with the health departments on this – not avoiding them.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a 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.