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Introduction Food security, known as access to sufficient and nutritious food for all household members at all times (Reutlinger, 1986), has been heavily investigated by entities from across the public and academic spectrums in recent years. In developed nations, food security primarily explores how food can be physically accessed and readily purchased and if levels of food access relate to socioeconomic status, rate of obesity, or the contingent health consequences (Black et al., 2014). In developing countries like China, the topic of food security has been investigated with increasing frequency and depth in the particular arena of food safety (Cheng, 2012). In China, the term food safety has become a buzzword that evokes horrible descriptions of lethal baby formula, gutter oils, meat laced with heavy metals and cases of poisoning. This paper employs an atypical type of social media, the online search engine, to identify public perceptions of food safety scandals in China. The paper evaluates responses to major food safety scandals across space, over time, and among users of different social identities using user-generated search history derived from Baidu 1, the largest Chinese search engine explored by millions of internet users daily. As large-scale survey is an issue of unprecedented complexity, this paper offers social media as a potential instrument for food security research and demonstrates the social roles factored in consumers’ everyday effort to procure healthy and nutritious foods. To solicit public perceptions of food safety issues, traditional survey methods such as paper-based or online questionnaires (Haapala & Probart, 2004), telephone surveys (Fleming et al., 2006), and face-to-face interviews (Van Rijswijk & Frewer, 2008) have been widely employed. Although these methods benefit from custom research designs and targeting selected respondents, the sheer effort of surveyors and cost of resources involved in traditional surveys are relatively consuming. An emerging trend in large scope surveys is using self-reported data or volunteered geographic information (VGI) on social media platforms such as Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter, primarily in the spectrum of disaster response (Goodchild & Glennon, 2010) and infectious disease surveillance (Schmidt, 2012). VGI is generated by anonymous internet users, who are aware of their surrounding environment and are willing to share their observation without constrictive criteria. More importantly, the function of “geotagging” embedded in the VGI enables a multitude of geographical analyses that evaluate the spatial distribution and temporal fluctuation of information. Space and time are two important dimensions in dictating availability and quality of food, which in turn eventually exert a long-term influence on the food culture of families and their resulting health status (Chen & Kwan, 2015). The application of VGI to the topical area of food security is scant. The only examples we found are cases using geotagged information from Twitter, which reported the relationship between food references and physical as well as socioeconomic foodscapes on different geographical scales (Chen & Yang, 2014; Widener & Li, 2014). The deteriorating food environment in China has prompted our attempt to explore Baidu, the pervasively used Chinese social media, to unveil public concerns of major food safety scandals that have occurred in recent years.



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Global Media Journal




© 2015, Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo.

Blackard, Emily, Zhao, Bo, et al. (2015). Unveiling Perceptions of Food Safety Scandals in China: An Exploratory Study With Search Engine. Global Media Journal, 2015.