This morning I visited the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) website to check, in the face of the current salmonella outbreak, if the Kroger “natural creamy” peanut butter that had been sitting in our cupboards was safe to feed my four-year-old son. I typed in the UPC code from the jar into the search bar on the page and discovered that it was not part of the recall. That was great—easy and quick. And Leo got his peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Here at the Sunlight Foundation, we’re often critical of the government’s forays into internet communication. But this is an occasion for praise. In the weeks since the salmonella outbreak occurred, sickening at least 550 people in 43 states and contributing to eight deaths, the FDA has harnessed the internet and social media to get the word out to consumers.
The main agency web page about the outbreak summarizes the situation, gives helpful health information and provides links to congressional investigations and testimony. A “widget” that allows people to paste a recall search box on their web pages was used 1.4 million times in nine days, and the website itself was searched 20 million times. The FDA also made use of twitter (@FDArecalls), blogs, mobile alerts, and online videos to alert the public about the danger.
The FDA also offers a feed of the recall information in a variety of formats—the underlying raw, structured data on which products are affected by the outbreak—so that inventive programmers can mash it up with other information should inspiration strike. Over at the blog “Development in a Blink,” Doug Finke took the information and ran it through a social mapping program to come up with this visualization on the relationships among the companies and brands involved in the recall.
There's certainly more the agency could do. For example, it could create a way that people could text the name of a product to them from their cell phones and receive back a text saying whether the item is affected by the recall or not.
And there’s another long investigation to be told in how we’re in this salmonella mess in the first place. The food processing industry has long lobbied against giving the FDA stronger authority to regulate food safety, contributing $11.5 million in the 2008 federal elections alone and spending $29 million on lobbying last year. But with the salmonella crisis upon us, we commend the FDA for taking advantage of what the internet can offer in getting the word out.