Restaurants Beware: Health Officials Are Using Yelp to Track Down Food Violations

A blog about business and economics.
May 23 2014 8:48 AM

New York City Health Officials Are Using Yelp to Fight Foodborne Illnesses

rtx19f6p
Restaurants take note: A bad Yelp review could cause this.

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

New York City restaurants have a new reason to fear bad Yelp reviews: The health department is watching.

Health officials are drawing on Yelp's reservoir of data to track down unreported foodborne illnesses and food-handling violations. Using nothing more than reviews on the site as a starting point, researchers at Yelp, Columbia University, and the New York City health department were able to identify three previously unreported outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and multiple food-handling violations, according to a paper published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

Advertisement

Between July 2012 and March 2013, researchers scanned 294,000 Yelp restaurant reviews for the keywords "sick," "vomit," "diarrhea," and "food poisoning." Reviews were considered highly likely to describe a foodborne illness if they contained those terms, reported two or more people as ill, and allowed for an incubation of 10-plus hours (the timespan needed for most foodborne illnesses to manifest).

Experts found nearly 500 posts to be consistent with cases of recent foodborne illnesses—and only 3 percent of them had been previously reported to the health department. The offending food items were thought to be house salad, shrimp and lobster cannelloni, and macaroni and cheese spring rolls, according to the CDC report. Food-handling violations included bare-hand contact with prepared foods, mouse activity, and live roaches. Yum.

The Yelp-Columbia-Department of Health collaboration is the latest sign that researchers are waking up to the wealth of user-generated content and information on platforms like Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. Similar projects include Google's Flu Trends map and the University of Michigan Economic Indicators From Social Media (which might be summed up as Twitternomics). Each takes a large volume of something—Yelp reviews, search terms, tweets, etc.—and sifts through the mountain of data to identify useful trends. But Yelp's project is particularly intriguing because it has the potential to dramatically improve elements of public health.

You also have to wonder why so many potential food-poisoning complaints weren't reported to the city but were posted on Yelp. Perhaps part of the problem is that lots of people don't know how to go about submitting a formal complaint but have heard of Yelp. Even if you do know the city's system exists, calling 311 or navigating the official complaint website is cumbersome. Venting on Yelp is simple, instantly gratifying, and free of bureaucratic procedures. For an already disgruntled consumer, that must sound a whole lot more appealing.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

 

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They just aren’t ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

A No-Brainer Approach to Fighting Poverty: Better Birth Control

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 16 2014 11:56 AM Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 1:23 PM Germany Has Asked Google to Reveal Its Search Algorithm, but That's Not Going to Happen
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Behold
Sept. 16 2014 12:59 PM Ethereal Views of Earth From Way Up High 
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 12:33 PM Slate Exclusive: Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.