In food poisoning probes, officials call for Yelp

May 22, 2014 by Mike Stobbe
This March 17, 2010 file photo shows the Yelp website on a computer screen in Los Angeles. New York City health officials found three unreported outbreaks of food poisoning by sifting through hundreds of thousands of comments on the popular website, according to a report released Thursday, May 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

New York City is using a novel way to uncover cases of food poisoning—reading Yelp restaurant reviews.

Health officials found three unreported outbreaks by sifting through nearly 300,000 reviews on the popular website. The outbreaks were small, together blamed for only 16 illnesses.

But one expert called it an innovative way to catch clusters of food poisoning.

"Great idea!" said Mike Doyle, head of the University of Georgia's food safety center. "Many people don't know how to contact the health department, but they're so familiar with social media."

It's the latest example of using the Internet to track illnesses. Others have trolled Twitter, Facebook postings and Google searches in an attempt to monitor and predict ailments like the flu.

In New York, outbreaks were traced to three restaurants and inspectors found food handling problems at all three. Officials were also able to figure out the tainted food involved, but couldn't say exactly what germ in the food made people sick.

Traditionally, health officials hear about potential food poisonings from doctor reports and phone calls from people who say they got sick. In New York each year, about 3,000 people complain to the city's service hotline. Only about 1 percent of those calls pan out and lead to a cluster of illnesses.

The health department got the idea for using Yelp after seeing chatter that helped with a monthlong restaurant investigation in 2011.

Officials reached out to Yelp, and the website agreed to help with a pilot project, said the health department's Dr. Sharon Balter. Crucial to their investigations is finding the people who get sick, and Yelp members have email accounts that can make that easier, she said.

Yelp sent the health department weekly roundups of restaurant reviews for nine months, beginning in mid-2012. Computer searches narrowed them to postings that mentioned someone getting sick. Investigators focused on illnesses that occurred between 12 and 36 hours after a meal—the time frame for most symptoms of food poisoning to surface.

"Most people assume they got sick from the last place they ate," but that's not always the case, Balter said.

They also concentrated on clusters, not single cases. Other germs besides those in tainted meals can cause food poisoning symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. Officials sent emails to 129 reviewers, but only 27 agreed to be interviewed.

The pilot project was described in a report published online Thursday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New York is continuing to monitor Yelp reviews, now with a daily report, and is exploring expanding to social media sites like Twitter, Balter said.

Explore further: CDC: Salmonella cause of most foodborne-illness outbreaks

Related Stories

Officials: Michelin eatery in Denmark sickens 63 (Update)

March 8, 2013

(AP)—Danish food safety officials ordered a cleanup and better food handling at Noma, one of the world's top restaurants, after more than 60 people fell ill with viral gastroenteritis from eating at the two-star Michelin ...

Recommended for you

Bile acid uptake inhibitor prevents NASH / fatty liver in mice

September 21, 2016

Drugs that interfere with bile acid recycling can prevent several aspects of NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) in mice fed a high-fat diet, scientists from Emory University School of Medicine and Children's Healthcare of ...

New therapeutic target for Crohn's disease

September 20, 2016

Research from the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) identifies a promising new target for future drugs to treat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The study, published today in Cell Reports, also indicates ...

Mosquitoes, Zika and biotech regulation

September 19, 2016

In a new Policy Forum article in Science, NC State professor Jennifer Kuzma argues that federal authorities are missing an opportunity to revise outdated regulatory processes not fit for modern innovations in biotechnology, ...

Arthritis drug may help with type of hair loss

September 22, 2016

(HealthDay)—For people who suffer from a condition that causes disfiguring hair loss, a drug used for rheumatoid arthritis might regrow their hair, a new, small study suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.