New York health officials track down foodborne illnesses using Yelp

NY's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene uses software to look for words like "sick" and "vomit" in Yelp reviews.


Yelp, the user-generated reviews site, is helping New York health officials find restaurants that might not be keeping their facilities clean.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday released a report detailing how New York's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) used a custom software program to identify restaurants that might have been in violation of health codes. The software combed through approximately 294,000 Yelp restaurant reviews between July 2012 and March 2013, searching for words related to foodborne illnesses, including "sick" and "vomit." Hits on those terms and others helped City officials investigate the matters and determine whether action should be taken.

According to the CDC, the software identified 893 reviews during the test period that required further evaluation by public health officials. Of the 893 flagged Yelp restaurant reviews, more than half "described an event consistent with foodborne illness." City officials continued to examine the restaurant reviews and interview Yelp users. In the end, three previously unreported restaurant-related illness warranted a full outbreak investigation -- and officials found "food-handling violations" at all three restaurants.

Yelp is both a boon and bane for the restaurant industry. The service provides an outlet for a restaurant's fans to tell others how great a place is, but one bad meal will set off a string of complaints about the restaurant. Indeed, Yelp has become a go-to resource for many restaurant-seekers, and opinions on the site matter greatly.

In the CDC report, the organization found that there were both benefits and issues with using Yelp and potentially other restaurant-reviews sites to ensure health standards. The organization reported that services like Yelp can "help to identify unreported outbreaks of foodborne illness and restaurants with deficiencies in food handling." In this brief study alone, city officials discovered that only 3 percent of illnesses reported on Yelp were also reported directly to the health department. Still, the process required "considerable time and resources" to find offending restaurants.

Despite the challenges, the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene plans to continue the program with some improvements baked in to make the process of discovering health issues simpler.

"To shorten the time from review to investigation, Yelp will provide daily instead of weekly review feeds, and, to increase sensitivity, the project will be expanded to include additional review websites," the CDC wrote in its report. "To improve response rates, DOHMH will offer a link to an electronic survey. Finally, DOHMH is exploring the possibility of linking multiple complaints pertaining to the same restaurant, using data from different review websites and DOHMH databases."

"We're delighted that the NYC Dept of Health was able to use the real-time consumer feedback from Yelp reviews to identify unreported outbreaks of food-borne illness; numerous municipalities are taking the further step with Yelp's two-way communication platform to protect consumers by publicly reporting restaurant hygiene scores through Yelp's LIVES standard and we look forward to continuing to engage with the city on this important initiative," Yelp director of public policy Luther Lowe told CNET in a statement.

(Via NYT)

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