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In food poisoning probes, officials call for Yelp

Yelp
NEW YORK (AP) - 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 311 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.

Overall, three outbreaks involving 16 people were discovered from the Yelp reviews. The city identifies about 30 restaurant-based outbreaks in a typical year, Balter said.

The tainted food: house salads, shrimp and lobster cannelloni and a menu item called macaroni and cheese spring rolls.

Inspections at the restaurants found a variety of food safety violations in food storage and sanitation. Signs of mice and roaches were found at one.

Balter would not identify the three restaurants.

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.

Georgia's Doyle noted that the project took a lot of work, and smaller places may not have the resources. The authors said restaurant review websites could boost reports by providing a link to local health departments.

Other places have been trying new approaches to catch cases. Last year, Utah launched an "I Got Sick" website to make reporting suspected food poisoning faster and easier. The Chicago Department of Public Health helped develop a system that contacts people who post complaints on Twitter.

Join the discussion

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rspolo May 23 2014 at 7:40 AM

Another governmental nightmare.Yelp is famous for inaccurate reports and now the government is monitoring you can be sure that people will make false claims of poisoning for any restaurant they had a service issue with. Is the government going to protect the names of the people who made the complaints or will the restaurant be able to face their accuser and will the government protect the names of the restaurants the "might" have been involved in disease transmission (they haven't released the names but they will have to once FOIL request are made) If you get sick and want to report it call 311, we do not need to spend a small fortune to read 300,000 messages to find 16 potential illnesses (notice how the article said that all three places had violations but everyone on NY knows that EVERY restaurant has violations if they want to write them up (an A rating has nothing to do with a clean and safe restaurant it just means the owner is diligent in paying the fines for the "violations")

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1 reply
hardagesa rspolo May 23 2014 at 8:51 AM

With search engines, one does not need to read 300,000 emails, just search through for key words. It was a creative idea, to search Yelp, but probably not one they'll adopt. It would be much better for Yelp to post a button for people to use to contact the local authorities in the event that they suspect food poisoning. That said, any restaurant with numerous violations ought to be shut down. That rarely happens, nobody wants to put businesses out of business, and for people to lose their jobs. On the other hand, the health department should follow it's mandate.

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1 reply
demslosebig2014 hardagesa May 23 2014 at 9:51 AM

Read the post right before yours.

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demslosebig2014 May 23 2014 at 9:51 AM

Yelp doesnt always contain truthful restaurant reviews.

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1 reply
imopettibone demslosebig2014 May 23 2014 at 1:26 PM

agreed - and if there are negative reviews, an employee or restaurant owner can just as easily go on yelp and review themselves favorably enough times with different accounts, to bump off the oldest negative review(s) - the new bucket rating eventually shows up - if you know what to look for, pay attention to a rash of review dates that are very close together - that is usually a sure sign there is a group trying to bump off the old 'bad' review.

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Randy May 23 2014 at 9:52 AM

I could give a rat's rear end where information regarding dangers is sourced, but would the media hacks stop calling the EMPLOYEES OF THE TAXPAYERS - OFFICIALS, please? They are not official anything... they are employees tasked by their employers to assure the safety of their employers.... The more these employees are referred to as "officials" the larger their heads swell and the smaller their contribution to doing the job they have been hired to perform.

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imopettibone May 23 2014 at 1:21 PM

Well, yelp is fine for reviews from other diners that are HAPPY - but the truth is, there is a feature on Yelp that blocks or hides the negative experiences - I know, because it happened to a review I did - to see it at first, then a few days later, it disappeared. I happen to notice that there are 'hidden' reviews - so look closely...yelp is not necessarily on the straight as an arrow.

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jbraidedbeauty1 May 23 2014 at 11:40 AM

how about wear gloves when you handle food, and dont pick your nose and cough and sneeze over food.. just plain cleanliness and common sense..tie that damn stringy hair up.

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2 replies
joebikerchef jbraidedbeauty1 May 23 2014 at 11:58 AM

Wearing gloves only works when prepping large amounts of one item. If gloves aren't changed after each type of food is touched, what's the use? I wash my hands after I touch raw meat or fish, every time.

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imopettibone jbraidedbeauty1 May 23 2014 at 1:27 PM

Funny you should mention gloves - almost anyone in ANY business (including medical and dental) are wearing the gloves to protect themselves - not the patient - or in this case, the diner.

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Susan May 23 2014 at 10:31 AM

They should check Key West for food poisoning complaints. Two restaurants at the bight constantly make people sick.

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chrissf4529 May 23 2014 at 9:56 AM

Biggest problem is "food poisoning" is a commonly mis diagnosed issue. Average person blames his last meal for the problem. regardless of real problem(three pitchers of margaritas, etc)

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2 replies
yayabeanes chrissf4529 May 23 2014 at 11:57 AM

Or they didn't wash their hands either after handling their privates before sitting down to a meal.

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WatergirlHawaii chrissf4529 May 23 2014 at 4:05 PM

Yes however, when questioned by health/med and/or restaurant professionals, all of these potentials are discussed and considered accordingly; this helps the both the provider and customer to identify and take corrective actions to prevent reoccurrances.

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halt1025 May 23 2014 at 8:32 AM

obomacare

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3 replies
Roger Mitchell May 23 2014 at 8:54 PM

Just last week I drank some bottled water and got real sick real bad that I had to be hospitalized. The tests said the sickness came from the bottled water.

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onlyway2goisup May 23 2014 at 9:01 AM

It makes me cringe and turn the channel when the cook sweats..dripping wet sweat....ummmm so................unappetizing! Also not using gloves and being obviously clean!!! Very simple but if this isn't done NOTHING to me is appetizing no matter who cooks it!

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3 replies
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