The salmonella-in-peanut-butter recall keeps on rolling: More than 1,000 peanut products have been recalled because they might be tainted, and more join the list every day. To keep up, you can now track the giant outbreak on Twitter. Yes, there's now a salmonella-outbreak Twitter feed, which delivers updates from the Food and Drug Administration on recalled products via the superpopular microblogging and social-networking service. There's also a widget (at right) that directs people to a searchable database.
That's a step in the right direction, since until now people had to rely on the FDA getting word out on dangerous products through the media, which is a haphazard method at best. Gabrielle Meunier of South Burlington, Vt., told a congressional committee yesterday that her 7-year-old son, Christopher, was hospitalized in November after becoming ill with salmonella. Meunier didn't find out until hearing a news report in January that the bacteria were in peanut butter crackers the boy ate on November 25. More of the crackers, and potentially the salmonella, were still in her house.
Federal health agencies have been experimenting with new Internet tools, dubbed Web 2.0, that make it easier to deliver information directly to the public. The "Health 2.0" movement got a big boost with the arrival of President Barack Obama, who is pushing federal agencies to use the tools to make the federal government more transparent and participatory.
When the source of the salmonella outbreak was identified in January, the FDA scampered to put a searchable database of recalled products on the Web. People have searched the database 19 million times in the past 10 days, Sanjay Koyani, the FDA's director of Web communications, told me yesterday. Outbreak updates are also available via blogs, widgets, and podcasts. The not-at-all-scary podcast aimed at kids explains that "icky bugs" could make them sick. You can even add a badge to your Facebook page saying: "I checked my cupboards for recalled products!"
By following the FDA's Twitter feed, I learned that Blue Ribbon Products Inc.'s Ultimate Gourmet Peanut Butter Cookie Dough yesterday joined the long list of products that may be contaminated. Twitter's a great way to get quick updates like this, because you can direct the free text messages to your computer, cellphone, or BlackBerry.
This new info-finding system isn't perfect; information on the outbreak remains scattered across three federal home pages, including those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services. But this new technology gives us civilians more control over how and when we get our mitts on information that could keep family members from joining the 575 people who have been sickened and the eight who have died in this latest outbreak.