IT Pro

Sick, vomit, diarrhoea: key words on the social media radar of food safety authorities

Australian health authorities are tracking a New York City initiative that uses social media and restaurant review websites to investigate cases of food poisoning.

A collaboration between the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Columbia University and popular review site Yelp resulted in the discovery of previously undocumented cases of food-borne illness originating in restaurants.

NY authorities are using social chatter about food poisoning to identify cases worth a check.
NY authorities are using social chatter about food poisoning to identify cases worth a check. Photo: Paul Harris

The project was initiated after an investigation by New York City authorities into an outbreak of gastrointestinal disease linked to one particular restaurant. It was discovered in that particular case customers had reported illness on Yelp but not to the department of health.

The department, which is responsible for rating health standards in the city, carries out 24,000 inspections a year and rates restaurants from A to C. Some are given no grade.  

A spokesperson for the New South Wales Food Authority, said it will monitor the New York program and “any other jurisdictions that may have something similar”.   

Users of Yelp's Australian site have reviewed more than 6000 restaurants and cafes and hundreds of bars and other food outlets.


The NSW Department of Health, which manages complaints about restaurant hygiene from the public, said it did not use social media to research incidents of food-borne illness but the approach had merit.

“The City of New York example demonstrates an interesting use of social media which allows consumers to share information regarding food-borne illnesses,” a NSW Department of Health spokesperson told IT Pro.

“NSW Health does not currently use this type of approach, but is looking at ways to increase the use of innovative technology to identify food-borne outbreaks.

“NSW Health is also making use of online surveys as a method of using technology more effectively to identify outbreaks. This approach is in the early stages of evaluation.”

According to a report on the American program from the US government’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York initiative identified 893 Yelp reviews that it deemed should be followed up.

Yelp reviews that included trigger words such as “sick”, “vomit”, “diarrhoea”, and “food poisoning” were investigated for signs a restaurant was at risk of violating public health standards.

Half of the initial reviews subsequently revealed illnesses but, alarmingly for the Department of Health, only 3 per cent of the illnesses mentioned on Yelp had also been reported to the agency by the individuals or their doctors.

Further investigations discovered three restaurants that were subsequently identified as violating food-handling rules.  Researchers identified specific food items ­– a house salad, shrimp and lobster cannelloni and macaroni and cheese spring rolls – that were responsible for the food poisoning cases.

“Health departments rely on the public to report restaurant-related food borne illness directly to them, yet many outbreaks go unreported,” the report authors said, adding that the New York City health department was continuing to refine its methods and would expand its data collection to other review websites.

The Victoria Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.

1 comment