Online Reviews Can Help Health Officials Identify Foodborne Illnesses

May 24, 2014 in News

Restaurant review websites could help local public health officials better track and monitor outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, according to a study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the Washington Post‘s “To Your Health” reports (Phillip, “To Your Health,” Washington Post, 5/22).

Study Details

The study’s findings are the result of a pilot project conducted from July 2012 to March 2013 by:

  • The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene;
  • Columbia University; and
  • Yelp, a business review website.

For the study, researchers analyzed about 294,000 food review posts on Yelp, Modern Healthcare‘s “Vital Signs” reports (Ross Johnson, “Vital Signs,” Modern Healthcare, 5/22). Specifically, computers examining the reports looked for keywords, such as:

Study Findings

Officials used the results to investigate 129 possible outbreaks. Follow-up interviews from 27 of the 129 possible outbreaks led officials to three restaurants that triggered about 16 illnesses (“Vital Signs,” Modern Healthcare, 5/22).

At two of the three restaurants, health officials investigated the kitchens and food supply, but investigators were unable to find the infectious agents because so much time had elapsed since such diners’ meals. At the third restaurant, investigators in a routine inspection found live cockroaches and evidence of mice.

According to the Times, officials said the project to help identify public health issues through the use of social media and big databases will be ongoing (New York Times, 5/22).

CDC said that New York is tweaking the project’s methods to make them more effective, NPR’s “The Salt” reports (Knox, “The Salt,” NPR, 5/22).

Luther Lowe, director of government affairs at Yelp, in a statement about the project said the company is “now taking this a step further by providing a two-way street for the data: Alert environmental health inspectors when an outbreak occurs while providing the latest inspection information to diners.”

Lowe added, “Our partnership could lead to a dramatic reduction in foodborne illness” (New York Times, 5/22).

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