The U.S. isn’t great at preventing food poisoning. About 48 million Americans get sick after eating contaminated food every year, and federal officials haven’t successfully lowered the rate of foodborne illnesses for any of the most common disease agents. That has a lot to do with loose regulations and a lack of adequate funding for food safety programs. But it’s also partly because outbreaks are hard to track, since most people recover within a few days and don’t necessarily report it.
That’s where Yelp comes in.
Health officials in New York City have realized that the popular online review website contains a wealth of information about what type of food is making people sick. When customers get food poisoning after eating at a restaurant, they often leave a negative review about their experience. By sifting through those reviews, researchers can identify potential leads to find the source of an outbreak.
Writing in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the health officials explain that they developed a software product that can analyze Yelp reviews for descriptions of symptoms that align with foodborne illnesses. Yelp agreed to partner with the project and sent over weekly batches of reviews. Out of 893 reviews collected between July and March of last year, about 56 percent included food poisoning symptoms — and only three percent of those cases had been reported to the health department.
Since Yelp profiles are attached to an email address, health officials could easily follow up with the people who posted about getting sick. Overall, the online reviews helped researchers uncover three outbreaks involving 16 people.
“Great idea!” Mike Doyle, who heads up the University of Georgia’s food safety center, said in reference to the pilot program in an interview with the Associated Press. “Many people don’t know how to contact the health department, but they’re so familiar with social media.”
Some other areas have experimented with creative ways to use social media to collect data on foodborne illness, too. Last year, Utah created an “I Got Sick” website to help make it easier to send food poisoning reports straight to the state health department. In Chicago, health officials have partnered with Twitter to monitor people’s tweets about getting sick from eating food.
New York health officials plan on continuing to work with the CDC to improve their Yelp program. They also suggest that review websites could easily get involved, and help encourage more people to report their illnesses by including a link to users’ local health departments on their pages.
Foodborne illnesses cost the United States an annual $77 billion in medical costs and lost productivity. Nonetheless, outbreaks are all too common. Health officials are currently busy tracking several different sources of foodborne pathogens: millions of pounds of ground beef that’s been linked to E.coli; seven tons of hummus and 221 bulk cases of walnuts that may be contaminated with listeria; and 188 six-packs of yogurt that may contain a potentially harmful bacteria named coliform.