Your Yelp Complaints Are Being Used to Track Food Poisoning in NYC

You wake up and there is definitely something wrong with your stomach. Could it be the tacos last night? Oh man, it was definitely the tacos at that dirty joint. So what do you do? You whine about your diarrhea on Yelp as a warning to would-be taco eaters. And now, the health department might call you up.

The job of city health departments includes tracking down food poisoning, but unless that poisoning gets serious enough to warrant a doctor's visit, most instances just fall through the cracks. Enter Yelp, the revenge forum for the food poisoned everywhere.

The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been using Yelp to track people who've gotten from food poisoning, as described in a recent report published by the CDC. A computer program searched 294,000 Yelp reviews—that's nine months' worth—for words like "diarrhea" and "vomit." Epidemiologists investigated the hits and talked the vomitters, which then led to 16 confirmed cases of food poisoning at three different restaurants found to have health violations on followup inspections. The investigators even tied the outbreaks to a specific dish at each restaurant: house salad, shrimp and lobster cannelloni, and macaroni and cheese spring rolls.

New York's health department is now combing through Yelp on a daily basis looking for cases of food poisoning. Online review sleuthing adds just one more tool to the arsenal of public health officials. It's almost the opposite of how investigating outbreaks usually works, when you start with many cases and slowly work you way back to common source. With Yelp, the source restaurant is obvious—problems can be identified quickly and shut down. A win for public health, for you, and your toilet. [CDC via New York Times]

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