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Who’s Buying and Selling Artfully Folded Ham on Facebook?

How much would you pay a stranger to twist some lunch meat into the shape of a rose and deliver it to your house? More important: Would you pay a stranger to twist some lunch meat into the shape of a rose and deliver it to your house? Regardless of your own preferences, there are plenty of people who would pay for such a service. They're called “graze boxes”—takeaway containers filled with meats, cheeses, crackers, and fruits—and they're all over Facebook Marketplace, selling from as little as $10 to as much as $100.

The grazing trend started in earnest on Instagram—here, tables laden with plateless yards of converging snacks first became popular in 2018, and those who formed businesses in this initial boom would go on to boast clients such as Tom Hardy and Kendall Jenner. But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and very few people got married or threw a PR event or lavishly celebrated a milestone birthday (at least, not publicly), and they certainly didn’t do it with a big, everyone-get-your-fingers-in spread. Enter the graze box, the same artfully arranged array of nibbles and pickles you’d find on a grazing table or platter, but in a handy container delivered to your door.

For buyers, graze boxes were perhaps a nice way to bring the fun of a low-key cocktail party into their homes while stuck in confinement; for sellers, they were an innovative solution to the brief hiatus in catered events. Naturally, then, they inspired a flood of copycats on Facebook.

Search “graze box” on the social networks' commerce hub and you’ll see plenty of inoffensive offerings—perhaps slightly less artfully done than boxes created by professionals, but appetizing enough, and inspiring in their entrepreneurial spirit. Yet you don’t have to scroll far for things to become bizarre. Why are those strawberries on top of that salami? Why is half a kiwi nestled next to those tortilla chips? Why exactly is all of this food laid out inside a pizza box? And does anyone really want to pay $8 for four shop-bought muffins, a small jar of jam, and a couple of candy canes?

Search “sweet box” on Facebook and you’ll find an even greater range of offerings—from personalized boxes of chocolate bars to random assortments of candy haphazardly thrown on top of tissue paper. Searches for “afternoon tea box,” “breakfast box,” and “munchie box” produce similarly varied results, some more alarming than others.

The Facebook Marketplace snack box trend is now so big in Britain that it has irritated Mumsnet and Reddit users alike. “In the past month iv [sic] had at least 8 people try talk me into buying a cheese board off them, I don’t even like cheese,” wrote one woman on the mothering forum in October. Her post inspired many responses, ranging from the horrified—“those grazing boards look horrendous”—to the bemused: “Who is buying these?? It’s just a bunch of stuff you can get cheaper at [supermarkets].” On the subreddit “Ask UK,” a “flummoxed” user flagged the Facebook trend last February, while another commenter responded, “Someone bought me one for my birthday in January. Was terrible. Shite homemade sandwiches, stale scones, repacked biscuits and relatively ok brownies. I hope the sender didn’t pay more than a [dollar] for it, was so, so bad.”

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In theory, it’s no bad thing for everyone and anyone to capitalize on the latest social media food craze, working from home and earning extra cash during a pandemic that has left many out of a job, short on money, and vulnerable to the outside world. And graze boxes certainly aren’t the property of a select Instagram elite—when done properly, the trade is an encouraging way for people to support local businesses or entrepreneurial home cooks, not to mention a pleasant solution to the nothing-in-the-fridge conundrum that plagues us all. But when done improperly, is there more to worry about here than stale scones?

In February, the BBC reported that British food safety watchdogs the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health were concerned by “rank outsiders operating off the radar” selling food from home without registering with local authorities and undergoing hygiene inspections. Operating outside of regulations and without education on the standards required in the food industry brings a greater risk of food poisoning and allergy contaminations. The FSA pressed Facebook to “take responsibility” for unregistered food sellers, arguing the platform had “an unavoidable moral obligation to help keep people safe.”

Facebook Marketplace prohibits the trade of alcohol, drugs, stolen goods, supplements, used cosmetics, and “body parts and fluids,” among other things, but there is no outright ban on selling food. Instead, the company’s commerce policies say that buyers and sellers are “responsible for complying with all applicable laws and regulations” or offenders risk having their listings removed or accounts suspended. Theoretically, then, Facebook could punish a food seller who fails to register with their local authority, but the options listed when reporting sellers do not feature any mention of a failure to comply with the law (or food poisoning)—Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

Graze boxes are arguably less risky than curries and roast chickens sold by nonprofessionals, also reported on by the BBC, but they are not risk-free. Peter Wareing is a Kent-based independent food safety expert with over 30 years of experience. When asked about graze boxes, he says shelf-stable foods such as crackers and pickles aren’t too concerning, except when considering potential allergens. A quick scroll reveals that the majority of Facebook Marketplace food sellers do not list allergens and ingredients; even if they do, Wareing is concerned about the potential for cross-contamination in home kitchens without adequate controls.

People selling graze boxes or any other foods online in Britain must register as a food business, be inspected by their local Environmental Health Officer (EHO) department, and receive a Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) rating. “We know that technology is changing the way people are buying and selling food, and we are looking at how to regulate online businesses more effectively and exploring ways to work with key platforms to improve consumer protection,” the FSA's head of regulatory compliance, Michael Jackson, says. “We encourage anyone buying food online to make sure they are buying from a reputable seller by checking that the business is listed on the Food Hygiene Rating website.”

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For those who do set their graze box businesses up legitimately, registering with their local councils and procuring hygiene certificates, the Facebook trade can be disquieting. Jodie Robertson started The Happy Platter Company out of her London apartment at the beginning of the pandemic when her partner, a trained chef of 25 years, lost his regular work. Robertson sells her boxes via her website, not social media, and says she gets why people buy and sell graze boxes on Facebook, but also can see where they go wrong. 

“I understand why people [sold them] through lockdown, I’m not giving anyone a hard time for that, it was a difficult time for so many people,” Robertson says. But, Robertson adds, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for people to ignore regulations or rip people off. “I think I can personally tell straight away if they’ve literally just gone to a supermarket and bought all the stuff. I think it’s a real kick to any customer when people go and do that,” she says.

Robertson’s partner makes the vast majority of the goods in the boxes himself, including the dips, jams, and chutneys, as well as breads and cakes. Robertson says a number of local copycats sprang up after they started their business, though many quit after realizing it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. “I guess it’s easy if you buy some cheap, flimsy cake boxes off Amazon and go to Lidl and buy stuff and plonk it in,” she says, explaining that there were “hidden costs” involved, such as sourcing a courier with a refrigerated van, finding a cheese supplier, and installing extra storage in their home. “We now have quite a few fridges in our flat,” she laughs.

Robertson says she believes people buy grazing boards and boxes because they want to post pictures of them online. The vast majority of her customers are women, mostly in their late twenties, although she has had the occasional customer in their sixties. “I think the popularity is just that it is very Instagrammable,” she says. Florence Swift, the 30-year-old founder of London-based Garner & Graze, operates out of a studio space where she is licensed to make everything from bagels to banana bread from scratch. She also sells through a website rather than social media, and says 80 percent of her customers during lockdown were sending the boxes as gifts to friends.

“It was a lot of birthdays, ‘wish that we could be together,’ a lot of people sending them to friends who’ve just had kids. Sometimes it was just like, ‘I know everything’s a bit shit right now so I hope this makes you a bit happier,’” she says. Like Robertson, Swift says most of her customers are women, and her male customers are usually buying boxes for their girlfriends or sisters. Swift says when she first started her business in 2019, she was only aware of two other grazing companies in London. “And then with lockdown, there’s just so many now, it’s crazy.”

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In the UK, 44 percent of new food companies founded since the first lockdown in March 2020 are home-based, and the boom in new businesses means that even when people want to operate legitimately, they’re left waiting for hygiene inspections to take place. Those who care less about legitimacy, operating via their personal Facebook pages with no contact details available should anything go wrong, show little sign of stopping.

Still, customers may quickly tire of those carelessly trying to jump on the grazing trend—the sheer number of crackers leaning against fruit visible on Facebook Marketplace suggests that soggy, unpleasant offerings are making their way out to customers. Swift ensures her crackers are wrapped so they stay crisp, and she’s also learned other tricks of the trade (put your edible flowers on last, so they don’t wilt). “I try and keep things like capers and pickles and olives away from, say, banana bread, because that’s a gross combination,” she says. It might seem obvious, but a quick glance on Facebook shows that it’s not.


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