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Online Restaurant Reviews Used to Identify Unreported Cases of Foodborne Illness


The Centers for Disease Control announced that online restaurant reviews might help to identify difficult to detect outbreaks of foodborne illness and restaurants with deficiencies in food handling. An analysis of nine months of New York City restaurant reviews on the business review website Yelp (http://www.yelp.com) discovered three previously unreported restaurant-related outbreaks linked to sixteen illnesses. Follow up inspections identified multiple violations at each of the outbreak restaurants.

 

While investigating an outbreak of gastrointestinal disease associated with a restaurant, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) noted that patrons had reported illnesses on Yelp that had not been reported to DOHMH. To explore the potential of using Yelp to identify unreported outbreaks, DOHMH worked with Columbia University and Yelp on a pilot project to prospectively identify restaurant reviews on Yelp that referred to foodborne illness.

 

Between July 1, 2012, and March 31, 2013, approximately 294,000 Yelp restaurant reviews were analyzed by a software program developed for the project. Reviews were assessed retrospectively, using the following criteria: 1) presence of the keywords "sick," "vomit," "diarrhea," or "food poisoning" in contexts denoting foodborne illness; 2) two or more persons reported ill; and 3) an incubation period of at least ten hours. Ten hours was chosen because most foodborne illnesses are not caused by toxins but rather by organisms with an incubation period of at least ten hours. Data mining software was used to train the text classification programs. A foodborne disease epidemiologist manually examined output results to determine whether reviews selected by text classification met the criteria for inclusion, and programs with the highest accuracy rate were incorporated into the final software used for the pilot project to analyze reviews prospectively.

 

The software program downloaded weekly data and provided the date of the restaurant review, a link to the review, the full review text, establishment name, establishment address, and scores for each of three outbreak criteria (i.e., keywords, number of persons ill, and incubation period), plus an average of the three criteria. Scores for individual criteria ranged from 0 to 1, with a score closer to 1 indicating the review likely met the score criteria.

 

Reviews with an average review score of at least 0.5 were evaluated for the following three criteria: 1) consistent with foodborne illness occurring after a meal, rather than an alternative explanation for the illness keyword; 2) meal date within four weeks of review (or no meal date provided); 3) two or more persons ill or a single person with symptoms of scombroid poisoning from eating spoiled fish or severe neurologic illness. Reviews that met all three of these criteria were then investigated further by DOHMH. In addition, reviews were investigated further if manual checking identified multiple reviews within one week that described recent foodborne illness at the same restaurant.

 

The program identified 893 reviews that required further evaluation by a foodborne disease epidemiologist. Of the 893 reviews, 499 (56%) described an event consistent with foodborne illness (e.g., patrons reported diarrhea or vomiting after their meal), and 468 of those described an illness within 4 weeks of the review or did not provide a period.

 

Only 3% of the illnesses referred to in the 468 reviews had also been reported directly to DOHMH via telephone and online systems during the same period. To identify previously reported complaints of foodborne illness, reviews were compared with complaints reported to DOHMH by telephone or online at 311, New York City's nonemergency information service that can be used by the public to report suspected foodborne illness. Yelp reviews categorized as indicating recent or potentially recent illness were compared with complaints from the previous four weeks in the 311 database.

 

Closer examination determined that 129 of the 468 reviews required further investigation, resulting in telephone interviews with 27 reviewers. From those 27 interviews, DOHMH determined whether the complaints warranted an outbreak investigation by considering the following criteria: 1) more than one person became ill, 2) no other common meals were suspected, 3) ill persons lived in different households, and 4) the cases had similar onset periods (indicating a likely foodborne cause rather than person-to-person transmission). For scombroid poisoning or neurologic symptoms, DOHMH considered whether symptoms and onset were consistent with scombrotoxin, ciguatera toxin, or botulism poisoning.

 

Three previously unreported restaurant-related outbreaks linked to 16 illnesses met DOHMH outbreak investigation criteria. Interviews with reviewers identified likely food items associated with illness at each of the three restaurants: house salad, shrimp and lobster cannelloni, and macaroni and cheese spring rolls.  The reviews of the three restaurants had been posted on Yelp 2–5 days after the meals. Environmental investigations were conducted at two of the three restaurants during the week after the interviews; a routine DOHMH inspection had already been conducted at the other restaurant two days after the meal. The two investigations and the routine inspection identified multiple violations at each of the outbreak restaurants. Investigators were unable to obtain laboratory data that might have identified the infectious agents. Environmental investigation of the three restaurants identified multiple food-handling violations.

 

For reviews not requiring further investigation and not found in the 311 database, DOHMH sent messages advising reviewers of the availability of 311 reporting. For reviews requiring further investigation, DOHMH sent messages requesting telephone interviews. Reviewers consenting to interviews were asked to provide details about the restaurant visit, meal date, foods consumed during the meal, party size, illness symptoms, and a history of foods consumed in the three days before symptom onset. The median time from review date to DOHMH contact to schedule a telephone interview was eight days. The interviews provided information on 27 restaurants, and 24 restaurants were identified as potential locations of recent exposure because the meal dates were within four weeks of the interview.

 

In this project, only 15 (3%) of the 468 recent or potentially recent illnesses identified on Yelp were also reported directly to New York City's nonemergency 311 service, suggesting that knowledge about 311 reporting is limited. Of further note, after messages regarding the availability of 311 were sent to 290 reviewers who did not meet the project criteria, 32 responded, of whom 25 (78%) said they were unaware of the 311 system or would keep 311 in mind for the future. The 311 service receives approximately 3,000 food poisoning complaints each year, and from that number, about 1% are identified as outbreak-related.

 

The results suggest that online restaurant reviews might help to identify unreported outbreaks of foodborne illness and restaurants with deficiencies in food handling. However, investigating reports of illness in this manner might require considerable time and resources. Restaurant patron reviews can help identify small, point-source outbreaks of foodborne illness because cases have a known common exposure. These outbreaks are not easily found by systems reviewing large sources of data, such as syndromic surveillance of emergency department visits, Google Flu Trends, and analysis of Twitter data for influenza and other public health trends. Most importantly, foodborne epidemiologists can confirm reports because Yelp offers a way to follow-up with reviewers for interview.

 

As social media usage continues to grow among U.S. adults, health departments might consider additional surveillance methods to capture illness reports from those more likely to post a restaurant review online than to contact a health department. By incorporating website review data into public health surveillance programs, health departments might find additional illnesses and improve detection of foodborne disease outbreaks in the community. Similar programs could be developed to identify other public health hazards that reviewers might describe, such as vermin in food establishments.

 

For example, working with the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Smart Chicago Collaborative recently developed a system to contact those who post foodborne illness complaints either on its website or on Twitter.  For health departments looking for an alternative to analyzing review data weekly, creating an illness-reporting vehicle such as the Utah Department of Health's "I Got Sick" website could be a more practical solution, although it might be less widely used than a review website such as Yelp. Review websites could assist by offering a link to the reviewer's local health department's reporting system at the time of review posting.

 

DOHMH plans to continue to refine this project. 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. 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.

 

See the CDC Announcement

 

See also Medical Law Perspectives, July 2012 Report: Foodborne Illness: When Grabbing a Bite Can Be Deadly

 

 

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