The Food Sentiment Observatory: Exploiting New Forms of Data to Help Inform Policy on Food Safety & Food Crime Risks

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Computing Science


Social media and other forms of online content have enormous potential as a way to understand people's opinions and attitudes, and as a means to observe emerging phenomena - such as disease outbreaks. How might policy makers use such new forms of data to better assess existing policies and help formulate new ones?

This one year demonstrator project is a partnership between computer science academics at the University of Aberdeen and officers from Food Standards Scotland which aims to answer this question. Food Standards Scotland is the public-sector food body for Scotland created by the Food (Scotland) Act 2015. It regularly provides policy guidance to ministers in areas such as food hygiene monitoring and reporting, food-related health risks, and food fraud.

The project will develop a software tool (the Food Sentiment Observatory) that will be used to explore the role of data from sources such as Twitter, Facebook, and TripAdvisor in three policy areas selected by Food Standards Scotland:

- attitudes to the differing food hygiene information systems used in Scotland and the other UK nations;
- study of an historical E.coli outbreak associated with venison products to understand effectiveness of monitoring and decision making protocols;
- understanding the potential role of social media data in responding to new and emerging forms of food fraud.

The Observatory will integrate a number of existing software tools (developed in our recent research) to allow us to mine large volumes of data to identify important textual signals, extract opinions held by individuals or groups, and crucially, to document these data processing operations - to aid transparency of policy decision-making. Given the amount of noise appearing in user-generated online content (such as fake restaurant reviews) it is our intention to investigate methods to extract meaningful and reliable knowledge, to better support policy making.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this project?
The most obvious and immediate beneficiary of the proposed demonstrator project will be Food Standards Scotland. Other beneficiaries are:

- Scottish/UK Consumers
- Scottish Government Ministers
- Other Public Agencies (e.g. Food Standards Agency)
- Food and Drink Businesses
- Local Authorities
- Wider Publics
- Developers/Users of Social Media Analytics Software

How will they benefit from this project?
Food Standards Scotland aims to ensure that information and advice on food safety and standards, nutrition and labelling is independent, consistent, evidence-based and consumer-focused. Analysing new forms of data in real time or near real time has the potential to inform decision making and policy, through the provision of new strands of evidence. The project will have immediate impacts in terms of the specific policy use cases identified in this proposal; it will also have a longer-term impact by building data science and open policy making capacity in the organisation.

Scottish (and wider UK) consumers will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the work described in this proposal - as a result of FSS delivering a food and drink environment in Scotland that benefits, protects and is trusted by those consumers.

Scottish Government Ministers will benefit from the project results, as they support delivery of a number of the National Outcomes (see, specifically:

- 'Our lives are safe from crime, disorder and danger';
- 'We live longer, healthier lives';
- 'Our public services are high quality, continually improving, efficient and responsive to local people's needs'.

The demonstrator will introduce many FSS stakeholders, including food businesses and local authorities, to the potential of using new and emerging forms of data. It also will benefit other organisations with a similar remit, e.g. the Food Standards Agency.

Local authorities and police forces will benefit through the use of new and emerging forms of data to support development of food crime policy. Ultimately, this will improve the quality and volume of actionable intelligence in relation to such criminal activity - potentially leading to less public money being spent on covert surveillance to detect food fraud.

Developers of tools for social media analytics will benefit, through access to the opensource Observatory software and experience reports from the policy use cases.

Companies will benefit from the development of flexible and scalable analytical methods for contrastive opinion mining and summarisation, and context-aware data veracity analysis. Though developed for the food domain, we envisage our Observatory as a powerful analytics tool which is generic enough to be adapted and applied to a wide range of economic activities, such as business performance analysis and evaluating the effectiveness of marketing strategies.

Members of the public will be encouraged to think about the relationship between social media and other forms of online content, and policy development. They will also be encouraged to reflect on the veracity issues inherent in much of the online discourse relating to food.


10 25 50
Description The work of the project has already had direct impacts on our project partner Food Standards Scotland (FSS). Through our use of the Open Policy Making Toolkit to run project events, FSS have been introduced to these methods - and are now adopting them for their own policy discussions. Early results from the project demonstrated to FSS that their existing Food Hygiene Information Scheme has little or no recognition amongst social media users in Scotland (in contrast to clear recognition of the FSA Food Hygiene Rating System, used in England). Other work highlighted an emerging food safety issue relating to fruits such as Papaya.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Food Standards Scotland / FoObs 
Organisation Government of Scotland
Department Food Standards Agency (FSA), Scotland
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The research team have organised events with Food Standards Scotland staff to explore policy themes and have gathered/analysed a number of social media data sets to explore the potential of new forms of data in food safety, health and nutrition.
Collaborator Contribution Food Standards Scotland have provided access to staff (policy workshops, ad hoc meetings, data analysis sessions) and have been active participants in defining research questions and targeting data acquisition efforts. They have also been directly involved in analysis of findings from social media and casting these in a policy context.
Impact Too early to report items.
Start Year 2017
Description Food & Social Media: Just #foodporn or a Force for Good? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The event was organised as part of the programme for British Science Week 2018 in Aberdeen. Approximately 20 members of the public listened to short presentations from the academic PI (Edwards) and Food Standards Scotland representative (Pryde) describing their work using social media data to help shape food related policy in Scotland. The presentations were followed by a debate and discussion
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Food & Social Media: More Useful Than You Might Think! 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact At a stall at the Huntly Hairst Farmer's Market during the Sunday of the Huntly Hairst, three members of the project team (David Corsar, Milan Markovic, Nikol Petrunova) ran a public engagement activity related to the use of social media data to improve food safety and standards. Attendees to the stall engaged in discussion on the topic, and were invited to take part in activities including voting on which social media platform they felt could provide the most useful data for improving food safety and standards, manually sorting and assessing social media data, and using a software tool to visualise and analyse a large social media data set.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017