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Disinformation: Blog

Foodborne Illness in the Misinformation Age

Sept. 13, 2022
The internet and information technology in general have enabled great advances in detection of foodborne illness. But like everything else, easy information sharing means that wrong info gets hoovered up right along with the legit stuff.

I’ve often felt that the Information Age should really be called the Misinformation Age. Wrong information can spread across the internet faster than accurate info, and it often does, because it’s the kind of “info” that people are more motivated to share: conspiracies, wrongdoing, bad news of all kinds.

I thought of that when I came across the news that the FDA is closing an investigation into reports of illnesses caused by consuming Lucky Charms cereal.

The agency received more than 200 complaints from people who said they or their children got sick after eating a bowl of the iconic multicolored cereal. That was dwarfed by the “reports of over 7,300 sick” referenced on iwaspoisoned.com, a website whose purpose you probably can guess from the name.

The FDA investigated the plants where General Mills processes Lucky Charms and couldn’t find anything wrong. This isn’t surprising. RTE cereal doesn’t have a lot of what anyone would call critical control points in the manufacturing process: It has extremely low water activity and gets thoroughly heated and dried. The last major recall of RTE cereal was for Kellogg’s Honey Smacks in 2018; the agency hadn’t even received any complaints about cereal between then and last year, when the Lucky Charms incident started.

Does this mean the complaints are illegitimate? Of course not. But it does point up how tricky foodborne illness can be to detect. Its symptoms are common to a variety of maladies, and even when you were undeniably made sick from food, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly which meal did it. That can lead to a cascading effect, where someone reads something online about an incident and decides, “Hey, that happened to me too!”

The internet and information technology in general have enabled great advances in detection of foodborne illness, especially by making DNA-based identification of specific organism strains readily available. But like everything else, easy information sharing means that wrong info gets hoovered up right along with the legit stuff.

On the positive side, people who go to the trouble of self-reporting illnesses usually aren’t doing it to be funny, or malicious; they genuinely believe they have a problem. And there have been cases where social-media reports of foods causing illnesses have been all too legitimate. iwaspoisoned.com says it tries to safeguard against false and malicious reports of food poisoning: “Every single report gets both a human review and a technical back end review.”

The Information/Misinformation Age is with us to stay. It’s easier now for both legitimate and false claims to cluster together; food companies, regulators and others will have to adjust to the new normal. There are going to be more alarms and more investigations, some of which will uncover genuine problems, and some of which will just be problems in and of themselves.