Up until now, all restaurant owners had to worry about when it came to bad Yelp reviews was a hit to their business. But a new pilot project in New York could see them get pinpointed as the source for food-borne illness outbreaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report recently saying that New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has completed a pilot project that used Yelp reviews to help identify unreported outbreaks of food-borne illness.
The researchers used a software program developed by Columbia University to search nearly 300,000 Yelp reviews of restaurants in the city over a nine-month period in 2012-13. The researchers searched for specific words like “sick,” “vomit” and “diarrhea,” along with other details.
Using the research, health officials were able to pinpoint three instances when 16 people had been made ill by restaurant food. Furthermore, they were able to discern the restaurants patrons had eaten at and the food the patrons had eaten that made them ill.
Since diners who suffer food-related ailments rarely report them, using Yelp helps to keep track of these unreported outbreaks.
“With food-borne illnesses, it’s much better to reach people sooner,” said Dr. Sharon Balter, a medical epidemiologist with New York’s health department. “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.”
During the pilot program, the computers searched through a week’s worth of Yelp reviews at a time, but now that’s been bumped up to checking them daily.
Health officials don’t just rely on the reviews, though. Once it’s been determined that a restaurant has made two more people sick and that the incubation period was more than 10 hours, the researchers then reach out to the patrons through Yelp to ask if they’d be willing to talk with health officials.
Using this information, city health officials investigated the restaurants where the illnesses originated (as they do with all illness outbreaks) and although they weren’t able to identify the source of the illnesses, they did discover unsanitary practices and other health violations at the restaurants.