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Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center

Social media to the rescue

A new way of detecting potential sources of foodborne illness resulting from restaurant-type sources is being utilized more frequently. Customers are now responding to good or bad experiences by using websites and blogs and posting on social media sites.

By Peter Muriana

(Stillwater, Okla. - July 15, 2016) Not all sources of foodborne illness are identified so health authorities can examine them and put a stop to the source. The typical scenario for identification of incidents leading to foodborne illness outbreaks often is the result of people getting sick, getting treatment and the doctor notifying the health department if it is a notifiable disease, such as illnesses from Salmonella, Listeria and Escherichia coli O157. The health department then investigates by conducting interviews to determine what foods the people consumed and if there is a connection to a common food item from a market or restaurant that had been consumed. Some of these types of foodborne illness may go undetected for a period because not all people seek medical help from bouts of diarrhea unless it is extreme, or a doctor may forego the paperwork involved in reporting.

However, a new way of detecting potential sources of foodborne illness resulting from restaurant-type sources is being utilized more frequently. Customers are now responding to good or bad experiences by using websites and blogs and posting on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. On these sites, someone may mention an unpleasant stay at a hotel, a bad customer experience at a particular store or unpleasant experience at a particular eating establishment. It is this type of consumer complaint that health department officials at state, local and national levels are starting to examine more frequently to sift out clues to potential foodborne outbreaks.

In 2013, the Chicago Department of Public Health began examining Twitter about eating establishments. It found Twitter messages in reference to food poisoning and followed up on 270 tweets from which 193 complaints were lodged. This resulted in the inspection of 133 restaurants of which 21 were forced to close and another 33 were required to accommodate health violations. The Chicago Department of Health established www.foodbornechicago.org with the intent of tracking complaints on Twitter and identifying and following those leads to potential foodborne illnesses caused by city restaurants.

Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control reported the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene conducted a study that examined Yelp reviews of restaurants for words such as vomit, sick or diarrhea and other similar details. In hindsight, after investigating these reports, CDC researchers found three instances where 16 people had been sickened.

These types of studies help bridge the gap between individuals who seek help when they suffer a foodborne illness and the many more that do not report their illness. Complaining on social media sites may help provide evidence that something is happening at the source of the complaint.

Yelp’s director of government affairs said they are already working with large cities to establish a system to alert environmental health inspectors when individuals may be succumbing to foodborne illness from the descriptions of their reviews.

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