Pink Sauce Saga Raises Important Questions About DTC Marketing On TikTok
Viral discussion about TikTok’s ‘Pink Sauce’ has gone from casual curiosity to widespread conversation about food safety regarding DTC products sold through social media.
The Pepto Bismol colored sauce is the creation of TikToker Chef Pii, a private chef in Miami, who went viral on the social media platform after sharing a video of herself dipping a chicken finger into a bowl of the bright pink sauce. That video, shared on June 11, has gotten over 850,000 views. A quick timeline of the Pink Sauce Saga reinforces the growing impact of viral marketing on platforms like TikTok.
Notoriously close-lipped about what her sauce even tastes like, Pii spun the viral publicity in her favor, amassing more than 39 million views on TikTok between her first video of the Pink Sauce posted on June 11th and her announcement of the product’s first pre-sale on June 25th. Pii wasted no time in prepping the product’s official launch which she announced via TikTok on June 30th, days after the first presale had sold out. Between June 30th and July 19th, Pii earns another 55 million views in 75 promotional TikToks before viral curiosity about the sauce became widespread concern amongst comments from consumers about receiving exploded bottles or product that smelled rancid.
Unanswered questions about the sauce’s change in coloring and raw ingredients prompted popular TikTokers like seansvv to make explainer videos about the risks associated for Pii and her customers when consuming a perishable food item packaged with an erroneous nutrition label that was also not being refrigerated while shipped across state lines amidst a severe heatwave. The Pink Sauce label came under fire for misspelled words (“vingear” instead of vinegar) and a curious amount of servings per container (444 one-tablespoon servings — which amounts to 28 cups of product).
In a now-deleted apology video, Pii tried to address concerns about packaging, and ingredients on July 21st. In the days following, duets and stitch videos of her apology blanketed Twitter and TikTok amongst increasingly critical users who warned she could face a lawsuit if any consumers of Pink Sauce were hospitalized. This led to a handful of fake stories about users claiming to be sick from the sauce, however, none of these accusations have been verified.
Cheff Pii attempted to clear some of these concerns in a TikTok live on July 25th that unfortunately became another meme in the pink sauce saga. Pii was fielding questions about the food product that she’s been marketing. When someone asked Chef Pii whether her Pink Sauce was FDA-approved, Chef Pii provided a “what do you mean, I don’t sell medical products, the pink sauce does not affect your health.” Pii’s response prompted a Twitter snowclone that included “F in FDA.”
Pii’s pink sauce is the latest viral phenomenon that reinforces TikTok’s legitimacy as a major player for DTC brands who tap into the power of lifestyle and short-form video advertising. More importantly, the speed and volume at which widespread sensation became legitimate public concern raise bigger brand safety questions for food brands as they navigate the landscape of TikTok marketing.
Pink Sauce may be the most newsworthy food safety issue right now, but it’s not necessarily the only one. According to Darin Detwiler, PhD, an associate professor of food safety at Northeastern University, there has been a “growing concern” in the food safety world about these types of direct-to-consumer products.
Current policies on the FDA’s website state that products sold in the U.S. in stores — including condiments — are regulated by the FDA, and that people who want to sell dressings and condiments to the public must have a food facility registration to do so, the FDA says online. Applicants also need to meet FDA standards regarding product labels, manufacturing processes, and more. But the rules aren’t so straightforward with direct-to-consumer companies — like Pink Sauce — which are often subject to state-by-state regulations.
“Each state has slightly different rules about food entrepreneurs,” says Benjamin Chapman, PhD, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. In North Carolina for example, “food like this could be made in someone’s home but would require an assessment of the product to make sure it’s considered to be low risk,” he explained. “[That] would require an inspector showing up to someone’s home and assessing whether the individual could make it safely,” Chapman said.
The consequences of selling a contaminated food product are by no means hypothetical. Recall Daily Harvest, the plant-based meal delivery service once valued at over $1 billion. The company’s June/July disaster when one of the lentil & leek meals from the brand hospitalized 96 people with 277 illnesses reported. Luke Pearson, an influencer who received a PR package from the company, had to have his gallbladder removed after suffering weeks of illness. Abigail Silverman, a digital creative director at Cosmopolitan who also received a PR package, posted a viral TikTok detailing her extensive medical issues and hospital visits since eating the lentils. Several customers on Reddit reported similar symptoms, sending them to the ER.
Small food businesses are even more challenging to operate since small business owners on TikTok generally don’t have the luxury of venture funding to help them wade through such tricky legal and ethical territory. For brands of any size, this warrants the need for trusted insights surrounding viral phenomena and TikTok marketing.
Despite the backlash, Pii isn’t giving up. She said that the product is currently in lab testing and being made in a facility that follows FDA standards. Once it passes, she wants to try to put the product in stores.