Could Twitter improve food safety inspections

Chipotle is the furthest thing from fine dining, but Twitter is helping to open up the voice of consumers.

Graham Elliot, a judge on Fox’s reality television competition MasterChef and owner of the Graham Elliot restaurant in Chicago, is known to – in his words – "publicly humiliate" customers who complain about the restaurant online.

But if he thinks the complaint is genuine, Elliot said he will send a private message or call to invite the customer to try the restaurant again.

"It’s the democratisation of fine dining," he said.

According to this AP story, many U.S. eateries have been tweeting about specials or other events for a while. But recently restaurants – locals and chains – have started Twitter conversations with customers.

US chains like Chipotle and Pei Wei even have full-time social media employees.

Previously corporate-sounding restaurant Twitter feeds now are filled with streams of replies directly to diners, in some cases performing nearly instantaneous customer service.

Chris Arnold, one of the several people who Tweet for Chipotle, said the volume of Tweets is the greatest challenge for such a big chain, adding,

"You can either pretend that (the conversation) isn’t happening or decide not to be part of it. To us, it just really makes sense to use those as tools."

That’s nice. Now, all those consumers out there, start tweeting or e-mailing the local health department every time you see some dodgy food safety practices or claims.

Tweeting for toilet paper, handwashing in urinals

As I’ve said before, when Chapman got his first Blackberry he was so proud he sent me an e-mail from the crapper.

“Dude, I’m on the toilet, and I’m e-mailing you,” or something like that.

Last week, the apparently popular Tokyo DJ, Naika_tei, who also apparently doesn’t know to check for toilet paper before laying logs in a public bathroom, discovered the TP shortage after completing his business. The tei played it cool in the electronics store and sent out this tweet:

"[Urgently needed] toilet paper in the 3rd floor toilet of Akiba Yodobashi."

Five minutes later, he sent another desperate tweet.

After 18 minutes, he tweeted again:

"The toilet paper arrived safely! Thank you very much!"

No amount of tweeting would help the fellow in the video, below. According to one of my language correspondents, the folks in this clip are speaking Dutch, and the dude tried to wash his hands in the Pissoir — the portajohns were apparently there for the women. When she asks: For the record: is that the pissoir? The guy in the red shirt says: yes, a pissoir.

The blond with the microphone says she is speechless.

At least when I was a kid and went to Maple Leaf Gardens when Toronto had a winning hockey team (yes, I am that old) the communal urinal trough was level with the floor, not at handwashing height.

Social media spreads word on flu: CDC

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that a modest 2,500 people followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Twitter feed, CDCEmergency, when it was launched during the outbreak of Salmonella linked to Peanut Corp. of America products earlier this year. Now that the CDC is tweeting about the H1N1 flu (aka swine flu), over 100,000 members of the interested public are following.

In addition to the Twitter feed, CDC’s National Center for Health Marketing has responded to public demand for information with a Flickr photo stream, podcasts, videos and a Facebook page. These are the media familiar to today’s consumers.

The director of the National Center for Health Marketing, Dr. Jay Bernhardt, explained that the effectiveness of the agency’s communications through these media is dependent upon public trust, which is developed by speaking the audience’s language.

For example, Berhardt said of the CDC’s Tweets, “The social media team has learned to use a lot of exclamation points in these kinds of things.”

This lit review that I’ve been working on is full of evidence of the effectiveness of communicators that target an audience and then reach out to them with relevant, reliable, rapid and repeated information through the media they use every day.

The review also supports the evaluation of communication efforts to determine their effectiveness (and make changes, if necessary).

Polls by the Harvard School of Public Health have attempted to evaluate the effectiveness of the CDC’s efforts. And while direct observation of actual consumer behaviors would provide a more accurate evaluation, results of the consumer polls have been promising:

“[T]he poll shows that 67% of Americans are now washing their hands or using sanitizers more often, compared with 59% who said the same thing a week ago,” stated a report by MedPage.

“61% of respondents said they were not concerned that they or a family member would get the H1N1 flu within the next year. That’s up from 53% who weren’t worried a week ago.”

People can handle more information—not less—about the risks in their lives. Kudos to CDC.

Are web searches indicators of disease outbreaks? Is Twitter useful?

I’ve tried playing on Twitter, the social networking tool that keeps things self-obsessed and brief, and now that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have weighed in and told me what to think, I agree:

Twitter sucks.

In a related item, researchers from Ottawa and Harvard reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal today that search engine queries of the term "listeriosis" demonstrated a possible signal of the deadly outbreak that killed 20 Canadians a month before the official announcement was made.

Or not.

One of the researchers, John Brownstein of Children’s Hospital Boston, said,

"In the case of listeriosis, as soon as the outbreak was announced we saw people in Canada searching for the word "listeria.’ That’s not surprising. The media drives a lot of people’s search habits on the web."

But searching for the more technical term "listeriosis" began about a month before the public announcement, "and peaked a couple of weeks before."

The researchers don’t know who was doing the early searchers. It could have been food inspection or industry officials investigating the possibility of the outbreak, they say, or queries by family and friends of people diagnosed early.

People were not diagnosed that early, except a couple. Much of the diagnoses came after initial media coverage.

And in another related item, newspapers are dying. But more targeted forms of information are doing okay. People, individuals, are still required to investigate, to probe and to weave disparate data into compelling stories, whether it’s  journalism, public health or science.

People writing on Twitter, “I farted,” does not mean there is an increase in gastrointestinal upsets. People searching the Internet for listeriosis would not have prevented listeria bacteria from accumulating in Maple Leaf slicers and killing people.

Tweeting about Food Safety

Do you remember how you first heard about the latest round of Salmonella in the peanut butter?  Was it on the evening news, in the paper, or did you hear about it through Facebook or Twitter?  If you’re in the under 30 crowd you might fit into the latter category.  Social networking sites, like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are increasingly being utilized for up-to-the-minute recall information.

During the recent Salmonella outbreak, the United States Department of Health and Human Services – specifically the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – engaged in a heavy social media push to inform citizens about the health risks and product recalls.  As a result, the CDC Social Media Center was created as a central hub for harnessing the power of social networking to spread recall information.

Twitter is one of the sites currently used in the assortment of links.   Twitter allows users to “follow” one another’s “tweets” about what they do during the day.  The website is on the rise among medical professionals and there are accounts for all ranges of industry available.  Why not food safety?

Federal health agencies have been experimenting with new Internet tools, dubbed Web 2.0, that make it easier to deliver information directly to the public. The "Health 2.0" movement got a big boost with the arrival of President Barack Obama, who is pushing federal agencies to use the tools to make the federal government more transparent and participatory.

Current news about FDA recalls can be found @FDArecalls and public health updates from the CDC can be found @CDCemergency. The only snag is you have to sign up in order to receive tweets from the FDA, but hey, its free.  After all, you’re no one if you’re not on Twitter.