Can Yelp Track Foodborne Illness Outbreaks In Restaurants?

People tend to under-report food poisoning: generally, we don’t visit the doctor for a small digestive disturbance or report our illness to the local health department unless it happens to be part of a widely-publicized outbreak. What if there were another way to learn about these outbreaks, though? What if health departments could use Yelp?

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.

Yelp Helps NYC Health Department Track Foodborne Illnesses [National Geographic]
Using Online Reviews by Restaurant Patrons to Identify Unreported Cases of Foodborne Illness — New York City, 2012–2013 [CDC]

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  1. mzmoose says:

    This is kind of silly. Most times when people are convinced they have food poisoning, they don’t. “I went to the restaurant and by the time I got home I was sick” is the typical complaint, and that is *rarely* food poisoning.

    More likely it’s the aging body’s natural reaction to too much fat. Oversimplifying, but eating excess fat can cause the body to generate too much bile which, in turn, can cause your gastro-intestinal system to go into an uproar. This becomes more common as we age.

    If you get sick the next day, you run a fever, and you’re still sick the next day? That’s probably food poisoning. But that “I got home and spent two hours in the bathroom” is very likely not.

    • SirJanes says:

      The analysis of the Yelp data is reported to consider the time factor. Only cases of illness reported to occur 10-12 hours after leaving the eatery were consider according to an earlier report.