Friday 04 July, 2014
Yelp and review sites like it help you find a good slice of pizza but they can also do much more. Recently, Yelp has helped health authorities in New York City nail restaurants that weren’t meeting health standards.
Scouring the Reviews
NYC health officials scoured 300,000 reviews on Yelp to identify possible cases of food poisoning. The end result is that they found 16 cases where food poisoning was definitely the cause. That’s not very many, but officials are pleased with the great potential that the social media site offers.
Anyhow, it’s better than the traditional method where doctors and officials had no recourse except to wait for phone calls to come in. A vast majority of those who get food poisoning don’t bother to make the call.
New York City offers its 311 line for reporting food poisoning and it can be assumed that most people don’t know about it. The line gets about 3,000 calls per year, only one of which on average actually results in a real case. University of Georgia’s food safety center head Mike Doyle says, ‘Many people don’t know how to contact the health department, but they’re so familiar with social media.’ Clearly, social media offers a better method.
How Officials Found the Culprits
Officials were inspired to carry out the investigation by a 2011 case where Yelp played a part. They reached out to Yelp which gladly offered its service. Yelp rounded up reports from a nine month period starting in 2012 and turned these over to health officials.
Officials looked for reports where Yelp users said they got sick within a day or two of eating somewhere. They looked at clusters, not just individual reports. It’s common for people to blame any nausea or stomach problem on food poisoning. It’s the go-to for all stomach ailments. So, health officials looked for patterns.
Finally, they reached out the individual Yelp users who had reported symptoms similar to food poisoning and asked them for interviews. The number who said yes was just a portion of the potential food poisoning cases.
The Future of Health Standard Enforcement
The entire investigation led to health officials busting three New York City restaurants which had violated health standards. Officials identified the tainted food but could not discover the specific germs that caused the illnesses.
This may not sound like such a great triumph. After all, officials analyzed 300,000 reports to whittle it down to a paltry three restaurants. But it’s considered a victory because it offers a new way social media can be used to catch health code violators. Doyle from the University of Georgia has suggested that sites like Yelp offer a link to local health departments. As users are reviewing the restaurant – well, actually, writing about their food poisoning woes – they can contact health departments directly and put officials on the restaurant’s trail.