Food Safety in Social Media

Social Media Stirs the Pot

Did you ever open a can of food and see something you thought might be a dead rat on top?

That was the experience of an Ohio woman when she opened a can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti & Meatballs one day in 2010 and spied a large gray mass atop the entree.

The woman contacted ConAgra Foods, the Omaha, Neb.-based company that makes and sells food under various brand names, including Chef Boyardee, its signature canned ready-to-eat pasta products. ConAgra Foods asked this consumer to photograph and then freeze the can’s contents, and they also sent a courier to pick up the contaminated product.

Laboratory tests demonstrated the mass was actually a big blob of mold likely caused as a result of damage to the can during shipping that allowed air to enter the can. Even though the blob was not a rat, it was initially perceived as a rat by a consumer, and that opened up a whole can of worms for ConAgra Foods.

It seems the aforementioned woman’s nephew had filmed the can contents and posted the video on the social media sensation YouTube, complete with the verbal consumer rodent speculation. Within 48 hours, social media impressions soared as a result of retweets by heavy influencers.

This posting of the Chef Boyardee can contents on the Internet prompted ConAgra Foods to act fast to correct the misconception about the gray mass’ identity.

Inspired by the incident, the company incorporated a more aggressive social strategy that has become an exemplary pacesetter for the food industry.

“The social strategy is based on a partnership with our Public Relations, Communication & External Relations, and Consumer Affairs teams,” says Jeanne Jones, consumer affairs director for ConAgra Foods. “Each department plays a strategic role, aligned with the team’s role within the organization. The Consumer Affairs team, as a part of the larger Food Safety and Quality organization, uses social media specifically to monitor and engage consumers on the topics of food safety, quality, and consumer education. If we see a consumer posting about anything that we would normally address via our traditional channels, namely phone, email, letter, then we engage or monitor appropriately.”

ConAgra Foods set up an “auto alert” system to let staff internally know of any potential issue. “We learned to better communicate with our consumers and we implemented a process emphasizing trust and transparency,” Jones relates.

“Our Consumer Affairs team has been utilizing social media to emphasize food safety since we began engaging with consumers in social channels in 2010,” Jones continues. “We take every opportunity we can to educate consumers on food safety through responding to social posts, linking to information, and taking consumers “off-line” to verbally discuss potential food safety risks in more detail. Examples include stressing the importance of following cooking instructions, using a food safety thermometer, proper storage of food, and safe handling during preparation.”

As part of its dynamic and proactive social media strategy, ConAgra Foods now uses an assortment of social listening and monitoring software and services. Most notably, a tool called Astute SRM (Social Response Management) is key for social listening and response within the ConAgra Foods consumer affairs department. Astute SRM is monitoring software that pulls all contacts for any topic(s) one chooses from millions of websites including Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. Posts are then pulled in and analyzed to determine if the sentiment is positive, negative, or neutral.

The system will “push” the contacts to a company’s social media employees based on how they are set up to be handled (escalate, flag, note, ignore). Employees can then engage, comment, ask questions, or request the person posting to take the conversation off line.

About Linda L. Leake, MS

Linda L. Leake, doing business as Food Safety Ink, is a food safety consultant, auditor, and award-winning freelance journalist based in Wilmington, N.C. Specializing in agriculture, food, food safety, and travel, her articles have appeared in over 80 print and online publications. Along with garnering awards for her articles and photographs, she holds the prestigious Master Writer status with the American Agricultural Editors’ Association. Majoring in Dairy Science, she completed a BS in Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Food Safety at Michigan State University. She is an active member of the International Association for Food Protection, Toxicologists Without Borders, Inc., and the National Dairy Shrine.

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