The photos that you see on food delivery apps are probably AI

Feb 28, 2024

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

The photos that you see on food delivery apps are probably AI

Feb 28, 2024

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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Ghost kitchens using AI images on food delivery apps

Ghost kitchens are allegedly using AI-generated images on food delivery sites such as GrubHub and DoorDash. The images are used to promote online orders from kitchens that solely sell their food via online delivery services. Rather than using real photographers, they are using images of food that do not exist.

According to Emanuel Maiberg, this practice is becoming increasingly common, with “dozens” of these ghost kitchens using AI-generated images.

Maiberg writes that he was first tipped off about this happening when a reader sent him an image of some strange-looking pasta that was being sold on DoorDash by a business called Pasta Lovers. The image is indeed AI-generated, that much is painfully obvious, from the five tines of the fork to the cutting board melting into the background.

Ghost kitchens using AI images on food delivery apps

After further investigation, Maiberg discovered several more suspect-looking images on both DoorDash and GrubHub. Gaurav Bharaj, co-founder and chief scientist at the deepfake detection firm Reality Defender, confirmed in an email to Maiberg that these images were indeed AI-generated, saying, “Our team observed that several images have attributes of diffusion images, while also being wholly improbable in real life.”

GrubHub told Maiberg that its policies do not allow the use of AI-generated images on their site. They stated that they would remove any images if necessary. DoorDash said similarly, adding that “Showcasing high-quality, accurate, and realistic menu images is crucial for maintaining customer trust and generating sales through DoorDash Marketplace.”

Poor photography

So why the use of AI-generated images in the first place when many of these food delivery apps actually contract photographers to take images of the food? Well, that could be part of the issue.

Several of these apps, such as Uber Eats, will use a third-party site such as Ocus to contract photographers to take the food photos. I partook in one shoot once, never to do it again. The photographers are paid a fraction of what they should be paid for this work, and communication between the photographer and the restaurant is nil until the day of the shoot.

One restaurant I was assigned to had burnt down. Another wanted interior shots, not food photos. Another had no idea I was coming to shoot the food. Then, they have to prepare multiple plates of dishes and usually have to repeat the process for each different delivery app as they each send their own photographer.

Basically, it’s a logistical and financial nightmare for the restaurant and the photographer, with a lot of food wastage and often sub-standard photographs in the end.

According to Maiberg, restaurant owners confirmed this, saying that it was easier to use AI than pay a photographer.

“The photographers sent by DoorDash seem to be especially bad,” said Connor Bolich, owner of SideDish. “There’s nothing worse than a couple hundred dollars of food cost and babysitting someone for an afternoon only to have garbage come out when you get the pictures back, which happened like five times to me,” he said.

Why does it matter if images are AI?

You might think that it’s not that different from the fast food brands using professionally lit and styled photos to sell their burgers. The burgers in the photos look nothing like the often sad and soggy item you actually buy, so why is using an AI image any different?

Well, it matters for several reasons. First of all, in many countries, there are firm advertising laws that state exactly what you have to show and what can be substituted in food photography. This helps protect consumers, making sure they get what they order.

In short, the food in the image has to exist as an edible substance. By using AI-generated images, the food is not properly represented and doesn’t even exist in the first place. Essentially, it’s a legal minefield.

“This is all incredibly depressing,” says Maiberg. “A local pizzeria can’t get by unless it makes sandwiches for ghost kitchen brands, the people who make a living taking photographs of food are being displaced by AI tools, and gigantic food delivery apps are still making money by taking a cut from restaurants and screwing over gig delivery drivers.”

And he’s correct. It is rather depressing. These food delivery apps have pushed food photography into a corner where neither the photographers nor the restaurants are doing well. Prices and quality, at least where I live, are at rock bottom.

It just goes to show that, once again, the bottom end of the photography market is being squeezed out.

[via 404media]

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Alex Baker

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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