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Researchers Are Using Yelp Reviews to Track Food Poisoning

Researchers Are Using Yelp Reviews to Track Food Poisoning



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Yelp

What made you sick (and write a scathing Yelp review) could help prevent future illness.

Researchers have come up with a new method of tracking food-borne illness and food poisoning: they’re taking a look at written complaints issued in Yelp reviews. Although it’s a less formal method than studies issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital have extracted data from over 5,800 businesses across the United States to determine where, why, and how food poisoning happens.

Their results? Yelp reviews are pretty much consistent with what the CDC already knows about food poisoning, namely that one-third of all food illness complaints are about poultry, and that beef, dairy, and beans were the other most troublesome food categories. The informal survey shows that 16 percent of Yelp users had trouble with seafood, which corresponds with 13 percent from the original CDC survey. More worrisome was the fact that 10 percent of the Yelp reports surveyed had some mention of food poisoning or becoming ill from food served in a restaurant.

"We can use these data for disease prevention and investigation. If someone is saying they had a bad meal at a restaurant, that could have a direct public health response because a public health person could identify the violation, and the food that made someone sick, and investigate,” said John Brownstein, researcher and co-founder of HealthMap, an epidemic tracking tool.

For the latest happenings in the food and drink world, visit our Food News page.

Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi


How Yelp Can Help Disease Detectives Track Food Poisoning

The Yelp app maps out restaurant locations in Manhattan.

Almost 50 million Americans get food poisoning every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. But only a tiny fraction of those cases get reported, making it tough to figure out where they came from.

But health officials recently discovered a trove of data that may help them discover outbreaks of foodborne illness and as well as the restaurants responsible for them, they write in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

New York City health authorities decided to see if the online restaurant review site Yelp could help direct them to unreported outbreaks. They looked through 294,000 Yelp restaurant reviews over a nine month period from 2012 to 2013 and found 900 of them that mentioned vomiting or diarrhea after eating at a restaurant.

Of those, nearly 500 people had described an episode consistent with foodborne illness, but only 3 percent of these incidents had been reported to New York City's non-emergency 311 services.

One in seven warranted further investigation. Health workers interviewed reviewers and discovered three previously unreported outbreaks. Inspections of those restaurants revealed problems with food handling.

In one of those outbreaks, which sickened three people who'd eaten shrimp and lobster cannelloni at a restaurant in January 2013, health inspectors found improper cold food storage, mouse and roaches and problems with utensil storage at the restaurant.

The CDC says New York is tweaking the method to make it more efficient. Meanwhile, Chicago is using Twitter to contact people who tweet about getting sick after eating at a restaurant.


How Yelp Can Help Track Food Poisoning

It's a site designed to help consumers decide where to eat. Now, New York City health officials may have found a new use for the popular restaurant review site Yelp: spotting foodborne disease outbreaks.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) teamed up with Yelp and Columbia University researchers to comb through nearly 300,000 Yelp reviews of the city's restaurants. They then whittled the list down to 468 reviews that suggested experiences consistent with a foodborne illness, and found that only 3 percent of them had ever been reported to the NYC Department of Health.

The researchers subsequently interviewed 27 of the reviewers. From these interviews, they identified previously unknown and unreported disease outbreaks at three restaurants, which accounted for 16 illnesses. Further investigation into two of the three restaurants identified multiple violations including mouse activity, live roaches and improperly sanitized work surfaces.

Dr. Sharon Balter, an author of the report published Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the idea of using Yelp to track potential outbreaks came from a member of her team, who was a fan of the site.

"[We thought], 'Wow if we could sort through all these Yelp posts, when we found groups of postings where groups of people got sick… it could help us identify an outbreak," she said.

The fact that the strategy worked to actually identify outbreaks, Balter said holds possible promise for future investigations.

"We didn't really know what we would find, but we were really excited that we found three outbreaks," she said, adding that in the future her team will "try to broaden it by using other social media sites."

Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, said the approach was intriguing.

"My hat is off to the folks at DOHMH for pursuing it," said Schaffner, who was not involved with the study. "It is innovative, and different public health agencies should try to do these experiments to see how we can integrate social media with public health."

"This will be an article that will be read by all of us in public health," Schaffner added, but he cautioned that uncovering true outbreaks in a sea of social media comments could be a challenge. "Even among those who expressed a concern.. there was still a further profound reduction when they got to the actual number of outbreaks," he said.

Doctor's Take

This isn't the first time social media has helped track disease outbreaks. Consider, for example, Google Flu trends.

But for the average restaurant-goer, it might be hard to tell whether an online grouse about getting a foodborne bug at a given restaurant is legit, and sites like Yelp might not be the best places to report such complaints.

For now, Balter noted, consumers should be aware that there are other resources available to the general public to report suspected cases of food poisoning.

"A consumer should know that he or she does not have to post on a restaurant website," Balter said. "They can always call 311."

Still, Schaffner said many consumers are likely to heed negative Yelp reviews, especially where illness is concerned, since most people would prefer to be safe than sorry.


NYC Health Department Uses Yelp to Track Foodborne Illness

Using customer reviews of New York City restaurants on the online service Yelp, health investigators were able to identify outbreaks of foodborne illness that hadn't been reported to the health department.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene worked with Columbia University and Yelp on a pilot project to explore the potential for using Yelp to identify unreported outbreaks, according to their report.

The researchers mined through about 294,000 restaurant reviews posted on Yelp over nine months during 2012 and 2013. To find the reviews likely of describing foodborne illness, the researchers looked for posts containing the keywords "sick," "vomit," "diarrhea" or "food poisoning."

The results showed that nearly 500 people had described an episode of symptoms consistent with foodborne illness. Only 3 percent of these incidents had been reported to New York City's nonemergency 311 services. [Top 7 Germs in Food that Make You Sick]

The researchers considered only incidents where two or more people who had eaten at the same restaurant reported feeling ill, and found about 130 of the reviews required further investigation. Telephone interviews with 27 reviewers who responded to the researchers' requests revealed three previously unreported restaurant-related outbreaks, according to the study, published today (May 22) in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In the outbreaks reported at each of the three restaurants, three to seven people became sick after consuming a meal. The researchers found that the patrons likely had gotten sick after eating the house salad, shrimp and lobster cannelloni, and macaroni and cheese spring rolls.

The researchers investigated two of the three restaurants after the interviews and found multiple code violations, including serving unwashed vegetables and improper food storage conditions. In one of the restaurants, investigators found a mouse and live roaches.

The findings suggest that Yelp may be the latest among websites and social media platforms, such as Google Flu Trends and Twitter, that researchers and health authorities can use to track disease outbreaks. For foodborne illnesses, a restaurant-patron-review-based system like Yelp can identify outbreaks that are too small to be detected by larger surveillance systems, the researchers said.

Yelp also offers researchers a way to communicate with reviewers and confirm the reports. To follow up with reviewers, the researchers created a Yelp account to send private messages to reviewers' Yelp accounts, requesting phone interviews.

For the 290 reviews that mentioned symptoms but didn't require further investigation, the researchers sent messages advising reviewers of the availability of 311 reporting. The majority of the 32 reviewers who responded to these messages said they were unaware of the 311 system.

The 311 service receives about 3,000 food poisoning complaints each year, 1 percent of which would later be identified as outbreak-related, the researchers said.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene plans to continue this project and expand it to include additional review websites. Yelp will provide daily, rather than weekly, review feeds to researchers so that they can investigate potential foodborne illness outbreaks faster, the researchers said.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


NYC Department of Health now using Yelp to track food poisoning

The New York City Health Department is now tracking words like “vomit’ and “diarrhea” in Yelp reviews to find and track food poisoning at restaurants around the city. If the watchful eye of the health inspector sees a trend emerging, the department may try to track you down if a meal made you sick.

The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene just completed a pilot project for the new method, which helps identify unreported outbreaks of foodborne illness using software developed by Columbia University, the New York Times reports.

Luckily, the city feels it can rely on New Yorkers on Yelp to always be extremely graphic with stories of post-meal vomiting and diarrhea.

City researchers looked through 294,000 Yelp reviews and substantiated three outbreaks when 16 people fell ill after eating house salad, shrimp and lobster cannelloni, and mac and cheese spring rolls at three unidentified eateries

“With food-borne illnesses, it’s much better to reach people sooner,” Dr. Sharon Balter, a medical epidemiologist with the city’s health department, told the Times.

“When investigating an outbreak, we want to know what people who got sick ate, who else was with them and what items they all ate together. If you wait, people forget.”

Now the program is in full swing and Yelp reviews are being examined daily by the city.

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.

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One-star Yelp review? It may be a sign of food poisoning

Yelp may sometimes serve as a dumping ground for the grievances of disgruntled customers who found the water too cold or the marinara sauce too tomato-y, but the next time you stumble across a slew of one-star reviews, you may want to stop and pay attention. The power of the masses and public forums may be helping public health officials track food poisoning outbreaks, and Yelp is at the forefront of this new, almost accidental method of food safety alerts.

Much in the same way that Twitter can help seismologists track earthquakes in five seconds flat, the ubiquity of Yelp and the viral nature of some of its reviews can be instrumental in not only detecting illnesses early, but also identifying potential patients who will need medical care down the line. In a recent example, Yelp user Pauline A. wrote a review of the Mariscos San Juan #3 restaurant, dated Oct. 18. “PLEASE DO NOT EAT HERE. ” she wrote. “My sister-in-law … and brother-in-law along with his parents ate here Friday night and all four of them ended up in the hospital with food poisoning. ”

Later that day, that very restaurant was shut down by Santa Clara County Public Health Department, and just two days later, officials announced that over 80 patrons of the restaurant had become severely ill, with 12 going into intensive care units.

The use of Yelp in tracking food poisoning cases isn’t a novel notion — back in 2014, New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene partnered with researchers from Columbia University and Yelp to scan 294,000 reviews of restaurants in the city between July 1, 2012, and March 13, 2013, for reports of food-borne diseases. By flagging for words like “sick,” “vomit,” “diarrhea” and “food poisoning,” the team ultimately found some 900 cases (previously unreported to public health officials) that required further review.

Of these, more than half were ultimately determined to be likely cases of food-poisoning linked to the restaurant.

A Boston Children’s Hospital study also noted that Yelp “reviews describing food poisoning tracked closely with food-borne illness data maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

But as seemingly accurate as these negative reviews and experiences may be in tracking potentially deadly diseases, it’s not always a straightforward process. As anyone who’s frequented Yelp may tell you, some reviews are written more to pick a bone than to actually relate an experience. And even more problematic is Yelp’s system of hiding some reviews while promoting others. In the case of the Mariscos San Juan restaurant, a number of reviews that spoke to food poisoning were actually blocked from easy view in Yelp’s “not currently recommended” tab.

Yelp notes in a blog post that it attempts not to “highlight reviews written by users we don’t know much about, or reviews that may be biased because they were solicited from family, friends, or favored customers.”

So by all means, take your Yelp reviews with a grain of salt. But if people are talking bodily fluids after a restaurant visit, you may want to consider steering clear for awhile.


Can Yelp Track Foodborne Illness Outbreaks In Restaurants?

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Can Yelp Track Foodborne Illness Outbreaks In Restaurants?

No, reviewers aren’t going to film twelve-second clips of themselves barfing. We hope. It’s possible, though, that people might mention illness in their reviews, even if they don’t go to the effort of calling their doctor or contacting the health department.

New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene worked with Yelp to obtain weekly data dumps of all eatery reviews in the city, then scanned those reviews for words that you might use when reviewing a place that made you ill. Keywords that they looked for included “sick,” “vomit,” “diarrhea,” and “food poisoning.”

500 reviews mentioned food poisoning that turned out to be an actual illness, and health department workers followed up with those customers. Out of the Yelp data dump, researchers found three outbreaks that had previously gone unreported, which sickened a total of 16 people. For smaller incidents where only one or two people reported that they became ill, researchers found that very few of these incidents had already been reported to the health department, and they would need to get the word out about how city residents and visitors can do that.

When you hesitate to mention that you became sick in your online review, reconsider! You might be warning other diners and helping solve public-health problems.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.


NYC Tracks Food Poisoning via Yelp

If you get sick after eating at a restaurant, you're going to let the Internet know about it, right? New York City officials are counting on it. Health officials have been scanning Yelp restaurant reviews to track food poisoning by identifying illness clusters.

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City is using a novel way to spot food-poisoning cases — reading Yelp restaurant reviews.

Health officials found three, unreported outbreaks by sifting through hundreds of thousands of comments on the popular website.

The outbreaks were small, together blamed for only 16 illnesses. Inspectors found food handling problems at the three restaurants. But officials weren't able to track down exactly what germ in the food made people sick.

One expert called it an innovative way to identify clusters of illnesses from restaurant food.

Usually, the city finds out about problems at restaurants through calls from diners. For a pilot project, the website provided weekly roundups of reviews for investigators to sort through.


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In collaboration with DOHMH, researchers at Columbia University created a program “that applies data mining and uses text classification” to scan Yelp reviews for mentions of food-borne illness connected with NYC restaurants.

The program looked for instances of food-borne illness and examined related entries to determine if multiple people fell ill after posting review of the same restaurant. DOHMH epidemiologists reviewed the flagged entries manually and attempted to interview some of the reviewers about the illness.

In a pilot study, the researchers found that only 3 per cent of the illnesses mentioned on Yelp were reported through NYC’s official complaint channels. The system “has been instrumental” in pinpointing 10 outbreaks and 8,523 illnesses since July 2012, the study states.

This highlights the importance of such programs, the researchers conclude, and they reportedly hope to expand their system to other cities. Given the prevalence of online restaurant review sites, and the “decreasing likelihood” that people will report food poisoning to the government, it’s increasingly crucial to be able to pull information from social media.


How Yelp Can Help Disease Detectives Track Food Poisoning

Almost 50 million Americans get food poisoning every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. But only a tiny fraction of those cases get reported, making it tough to figure out where they came from.

But health officials recently discovered a trove of data that may help them discover outbreaks of foodborne illness and as well as the restaurants responsible for them, they write in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

New York City health authorities decided to see if the online restaurant review site Yelp could help direct them to unreported outbreaks. They looked through 294,000 Yelp restaurant reviews over a nine month period from 2012 to 2013 and found 900 of them that mentioned vomiting or diarrhea after eating at a restaurant.

Of those, nearly 500 people had described an episode consistent with foodborne illness, but only 3 percent of these incidents had been reported to New York City’s non-emergency 311 services.

One in seven warranted further investigation. Health workers interviewed reviewers and discovered three previously unreported outbreaks. Inspections of those restaurants revealed problems with food handling.

In one of those outbreaks, which sickened three people who’d eaten shrimp and lobster cannelloni at a restaurant in January 2013, health inspectors found improper cold food storage, mouse and roaches and problems with utensil storage at the restaurant.

The CDC says New York is tweaking the method to make it more efficient. Meanwhile, Chicago is using Twitter to contact people who tweet about getting sick after eating at a restaurant.


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