Federal health agencies relied heavily on social media to inform the public about the recent outbreak of salmonella tainted peanut butter, possibly reducing the number of death and injuries caused by the illness, according to federal health officials.
Officials with Health and Human Services Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said social media helped them spread the word that peanut butter recall. The agencies used widgets, blogs, Twitter, podcasts, mobile alerts and online videos to warn the public that peanut butter manufactured by Peanut Corp. of America for institutional use and for additives in other products such as snacks may be tainted with salmonella. Eight people died and 500 were sickened by the infected peanut butter.
"The response has been really amazing," said Janice Nall, director of the division of eHealth marketing at CDC, on the public's reaction to her agency's social media campaign. "We look at social media as additional channels to reach people where they are."
Following the initial reports of a salmonella outbreak in September 2008, the CDC quickly isolated the source of the bacteria to a cluster of cases in 12 states. By January, the agency had identified Peanut Corp. of America as the source.
But in December, before the manufacturer voluntarily stopped production of the peanut products in question, communications officials with HHS had reached out to the Food and Drug Administration and CDC to coordinate how to inform the public about a recall of peanut products.
The agencies started by brainstorming ideas via conference call on how social media could be used, said Dick Stapleton, deputy director of the Web communications and the new media division at HHS. He said the calls were "very rewarding." HHS, FDA and CDC officials decided how to build on each other's social media experiences. "We tried to use every available form of media," Stapleton said.
FDA created a database of recalled products, which the public could search either by product name or category such as cookies, chips and crackers. The agency then worked with CDC to spread the word of the pending peanut butter recall because FDA did not yet have the IT infrastructure to inform the public as quickly as CDC.
Health and Human Services and CDC took the Food and Drug Administration's recall database and created a widget, a small online application that can be posted on other Web sites, many of which were run by other government agencies and private organizations. The widget allowed users to search FDA's database of recalled products from Web site operated by state and local health agencies and other organizations.
FDA also launched a subject-specific blog on its Web site, which informed readers about the latest news and updates on the outbreak. Blog posts included those from health professionals, CDC officials and featured video on how to avoid tainted products.
"Ironically, when all of this was starting to grow, FDA was doing a video on the anatomy of an outbreak," Stapleton said. "They put that on hold, grabbed a big guy at FDA and put him on camera to talk about the dos and don'ts for consumers to protect themselves."
HHS and the Centers for Disease Control also posted he video on their Web sites and on the commercial video-sharing site YouTube.
In addition, FDA created a Twitter account, a micro-blogging format that allows users to post links and messages up to 140 characters. Every time a new product is added to the recall list, an update is sent to the Twitter account and subscribers are alerted to the update if they followed FDA feeds. For users who don't have Twitter accounts, the agency created another widget that allowed Web site producers to display the most recent updates to the database on their home page.
Stapleton said his agency was prepared to use social media to manage the outbreak because HHS focuses on the importance of the new technologies to promote public health. The department currently is working to create a social media laboratory, a network not connected to HHS systems, that will be connected directly to the Internet but isolated from the department's networks, so officials can work freely with social media tools without worrying about the security risks to the networks.
CDC has a presence on two of the most prominent social networking sites, MySpace and Second Life. For the peanut butter outbreak and other issues, the agency has reached out to prominent health bloggers to help spread its message.
"We've done a lot of outreach with bloggers on HIV testing and the seasonal flu, so we thought we would invite the major mommy bloggers for the peanut butter recall," Nall said. "They go to talk with subject matter experts from FDA and CDC and we let them ask one-on-one questions about the outbreak. Then they write about it and thousands get accurate information from the source."
The popularity of the videos, podcasts and blog entries surprised the agencies but gave them proof that social media is a powerful tool to connect with the public, Nall said. FDA's recall widget was used 1.4 million times in nine days.
Agencies could expand the use of social media if they could negotiate a license agreement with YouTube. "The big problem there is that YouTube and others have an indemnification clause that federal agencies can't sign," Stapleton said. A new licensing agreement is "about 30 seconds away from being done" and would prove groundbreaking, because it will allow federal users to make use of the popular online video channel, he added.
"Social media works very quickly," he said. "It has to be a balance between having every word vetted and absolutely perfect and getting information out in a timely fashion. There's a constant tension between those two worth ends."