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Why we love our filth online

25 January 2011

Grimy subjects in the food industry are like a magnet for online readers. There may be many reasons for this but the sector's concern for food safety and hygiene is probably the most accurate.

As the repercussions of the information revolution filter through society, we're getting a good idea of what makes our online readers tick - dirt and grime. Let us explain: When we started writing articles for our website and newsletter, FP Express, about two years ago, we didn't have much to go on in terms of what online readers wanted.

We assumed they'd want to read what our print subscribers were reading. It turns out the readers of one weren't necessarily readers of the other, although there is of course plenty of overlap.

The key to this new-found knowledge is online statistics. We can now decipher how many readers have clicked on a particular article; over time, as more articles on every conceivable subject in the food sector are uploaded to our site and disseminated by means of our newsletter, a clear depiction of trends and preferences has emerged.

There are still many mysteries. One week, a story about a new biomass centre will be clicked on in record numbers; the next an apparently innocuous piece about a new hand-dryer for food factories could attract more hits than an entire newsletter combined.

And yet, despite the apparent random nature of reader interests, a definite trend has emerged with respect to food safety and hygiene. What we can ascertain thus far is our readers love a bit of scandal, and the grimier the news, the better.

We first noticed this right at the start of our online endeavours when we ran an article online about a packaging company called Coppice Alupack which says it has always been aware of the importance of maintaining the highest standard of pest control and has worked with Rentokil from the business' inception.

The article wasn't particularly revealing or even exclusive but it attracted a disproportionate number of hits. We were genuinely flummoxed. While many readers were clicking on our showcase articles about robotics, engineering and automation, many more were literally flooding to the 'pest control' piece.

It doesn't take an idiot to work out at least one reason why: food factories are concerned about pest control in their own factories but understandably aren't keen to be seen advertising that concern. Imagine the terror that would grip a supplier to Tesco or Asda if one of those vaunted institutions discovered they were worried about a rat infestation.

More recently, we've noticed plenty of attention being paid to articles about listeria, salmonella and health and safety incidents involving factory workers. One incident involved four deaths at a Texas food factory, SanGar Produce & Processing, after the deceased ate contaminated celery.

Texas health authorities closed the plant and an FDA report included 18 observations from inspectors, including failure to take necessary precautions to protect against contamination of food and food contact surfaces; failure to store raw materials in a way that protects against contamination; and failure to take apart equipment as necessary to ensure thorough cleaning.

The number of people clicking on this story, even though it was non-UK based, went through the roof, and smashed our previous record for clicks. We responded by reporting on the subsequent investigation, and although the number of clicks slowly decreased as the story became dated, it proved what we'd always suspected: hygiene - or rather the lack of it - is hot news.

In a sense, this may be a simplistic, even obvious point-of-view. Any psychologist will tell you people are generally attracted to the dark and grim side of life; it's human nature. It's why we rubberneck when we drive past an accident - and the gorier the accident, the longer we look.

But this raises an important point about how crucial hygiene is to our readers - both online and in print. And if we know what our readers want, we can deliver solutions. Therein lies the rub: if producers are too embarrassed to talk about hygiene issues in their factories, how do we know their exact problems.

The situation presents a bit of a Catch-22 dilemma but hopefully via media such as websites and newsletters, producers will be less fearful of speaking out about their hygiene issues.

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