Food safety, defined as the conditions and practices that prevent food-borne illnesses and contamination, is vital to the maintenance of sustainable agriculture, economic development, and global health.

Economic Drivers of Food Safety Regulation

Food safety is of high regulatory interest as unsafe foods pose considerable public health risks as well as social and economic costs stemming from income loss and reduced market access. Persistent and widespread, foodborne illnesses significantly contribute to the cost of health care in the United States.

Consumer-Initiated Change

Online reviews, recommendations, and opinions play an increasingly relevant role in consumer decision-making. A 2019 survey (n=1000) conducted by Japanese food packing machinery manufacturer, Ishida, suggests that increased consumer access to information via personal devices in recent years has fostered heightened public interest in food safety. Consequently, the elevated sway of digitally connected consumers holds members of the food production, packaging, and service industries accountable under threat of rapidly damaged brand reputation. In July 2021, a web search of the phrase “food poisoning” generated over 98.5 million results and interest in the phrase remained in mid-to-high “popularity” on Google’s normalized 100-point popularity scale between April and July, 2021 (see Figure 1) (Google Trends, “Food Poisoning,” 2021).


Notes: “Food Poisoning” remained in mid-to-high popularity on Google’s normalized 100-point popularity scale between April 5, 2021 and July 5, 2021. Data source: Google Trends (


Data Mining Usage & Limitations

An emerging body of literature argues that use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to mine social media posts and online restaurant reviews may support health department inspection efficacy. However, some scholars are hesitant to endorse these methods, citing their respective propensities to exacerbate bias. One journalist found that in the United States, a disproportionate number of negative online restaurant reviews are directed toward non-Eurocentric establishments, bluntly stating that “when Yelpers puke, they tend to blame restaurants that serve ‘ethnic food’” (para. 2). A study conducted in 2019 found that between Asian and non-Asian food establishments with identical food safety inspection ratings, Asian establishments were significantly more likely to receive online complaints than their non-Asian counterparts. When speaking to the potential for online data mining strategies to be widely implemented across local United States’ health departments for food safety monitoring, the authors recommended accompanying antidiscrimination measures and stressed that “private bias should not find a backdoor to public enforcement” (para. 11).


Key Takeaways

Food safety is central to sustaining human life; however, increased reliance on online data mining practices to identify food safety concerns may disproportionately impact marginalized communities. Equitable approaches to food safety must include intersectional policies and practices which ensure that the technological strategies employed to support these efforts are nondiscriminatory.

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