When we buy food off of TikTok, what are we getting, really?
Everyone on TikTok and Instagram is trying to make a buck in one way or another. From the creator fund to sponsored content and upstart new businesses seeking to capitalize on a newly massive social media following, influencers are cashing in. And in an increasingly common number of instances, these ventures involve making and selling food. But, regardless of how excited you are about the newest trend on TikTok, buying things that you plan to ingest from random influencers on social media is an objectively terrible idea, and no one should do it.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Chef Pii’s Pink Sauce. The dragon-fruit-spiked dressing went viral on TikTok first because of its vibrant magenta hue and later because of backlash after customers pointed out bottles were mislabeled, complained of leakage, and questioned whether the sauce, which listed milk as an ingredient, was actually shelf stable. Some claimed to have been sickened. Chef Pii, a Miami private chef named Veronica Shaw, insisted that her sauce was made in a commercial kitchen and that she never did anything wrong. And despite multiple TikTok videos featuring bloated bottles of Pink Sauce, she came out on top: Shaw snagged a deal with condiment producer Dave’s Gourmet, who agreed to produce Pink Sauce in its FDA-approved manufacturing facility and distribute it to more than 4,000 Walmart stores across the country.
A similar situation played out on TikTok in December, when MMA fighter and wildly popular Las Vegas food reviewer Keith Lee reviewed some pickles he was sent from an Etsy-based business called Pickle Me Everything. Lee praised the pickles, and his followers went to go buy them. That was until another account pointed out that Pickle Me Everything was admittedly not preserving its pickles properly, which could lead to botulism poisoning. The California Department of Public Health got involved, warning users to avoid the pickles due to risk of illness. Yet another backlash ensued, and Lee deleted his video endorsing the company. Early this month, owner Amy Mkhitarian posted a TikTok indicating that she has since completed a food handler’s safety course with plans to relaunch her business.
The power of parasocial relationships on platforms like TikTok is real — all of us “trust” the opinions of people we think are funny or who make good content. But it’s still pretty shocking to me that so many people are willing to eat something made in a total stranger’s home kitchen because another total stranger told them to.
There’s a major difference between these creators and the lady who sells homemade jam at your local farmer’s market, mainly in that her home-based business is governed by a patchwork of state cottage food laws. She might face some penalties if she accidentally gives you botulism, but the potential consequences for online sellers are murkier, and it’s much harder to tell whether a TikTok entrepreneur has any actual food-handling experience. Going viral on social media can get even businesses that are doing things right in trouble. Sometimes, a small operator is fully capable of managing a normal volume of orders but doesn’t have the capacity to handle an unexpected online onslaught. That can result in cutting corners, or even just simple human error, which has significant consequences when you’re talking about a risk like foodborne illness.
It’s true that we do not live in a world with a perfect food system, not by a long shot. That mistrust is partly why so many people are okay with buying food outside of traditional structures. Some of the biggest food companies in the world have accidentally sold people ice cream rife with listeria and ground beef riddled with E. coli. And who among us hasn’t gotten food poisoning at a new restaurant that doesn’t quite have its food-handling practices down yet?
But when those businesses do screw up, there are at least mechanisms like your local health department to hold them accountable, however flawed those mechanisms can be. The former president of Blue Bell faced jail time for his role in the company’s listeria scandal, but a food entrepreneur on TikTok might only have to delete their account to make the complaints go away.
I’m not trying to scold anyone for following their dreams or suggest that these individuals aren’t making delicious food. But, as dorky as this sounds, safety matters. Maybe it seems fine to consume spices or coffee or candy from some TikTok person you like. Spices are shelf-stable and (probably) won’t be contaminated with E. coli. But please remember that you have no idea about the environment in which these items are produced. You don’t know if this person washes their hands in between going to the bathroom and packing your order, or if they have 14 cats stomping across the table on which your spice blend is being mixed. You just don’t know!
And maybe, just maybe, if we collectively stop financially supporting the people who are so cavalier with something as serious as the risk of giving people foodborne illness, people will start to realize that there are real benefits to learning how to properly run a food business. Then, not only will they avoid sickening anyone with sketchy bacteria, they’ll be able to pursue food entrepreneurship in a way that’s actually sustainable. Perhaps this is a lesson we can all learn from Chef Pii: When you screw things up royally, sometimes it’s best to let the professionals take over.