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Tracking Foodborne Illnesses With Social Media, Websites and Apps

Health departments may have a new resource in their bid to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks: social media. Yelp reviews and disgruntled tweets can serve a greater good beyond blowing off steam after a bad restaurant experience; they can help health officials track the source of outbreaks faster and more accurately.

Two American Studies Use Social Media Analysis to Track Food Safety

In a study presented by Elaine Nsoesie, biostatistician and research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, social media and review sharing sites like Twitter and Yelp were found to be a useful resource for monitoring instances of food poisoning and other illnesses. When Nsoesie and her colleagues compared the foods implicated in online reviews that mention foodborne illnesses to foods implicated in outbreak reports from the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, they found that there was a significant correlation between the two lists.

A similar study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) in collaboration with Yelp and Columbia University had analogous findings. Researchers developed a program to seek out keywords such as “sick”, “food poisoning”, and “nausea”; instances of two or more sick people, and an incubation period of ten hours or more. The program compiled this data into a list of possible cases of foodborne illnesses. The initial list of 900 was narrowed down to sixteen cases of food poisoning, which were traced to three restaurant sources. Only 3% of the total flagged reviews had also been reported directly to the health department.

Canadian Social Media and Traditional Food Safety Tracking

Traditional channels for tracking foodborne illness outbreaks in Canada include reports from local health authorities and labs, and from provincial and territorial public health ministries. As these studies reflect, many people do not report symptoms of food poisoning, or even seek medical attention at all.

This is where social media analysis can be a valuable tool. It seems that individuals are far more likely to leave a scathing review of the restaurant that made them sick than they are to report their symptoms to the authorities. “Similar to notification or complaint systems, reports of foodborne illness on review sites could serve as early indicators of foodborne disease outbreaks and spur investigation by local health authorities,” says Nsoesie. Social media can be used in conjunction with traditional surveillance systems to provide “near real-time monitoring.”

Toronto’s Gastrobusters website & Health Canada App

Other reporting tools such as Toronto’s GastroBusters may be able to take advantage of the public’s propensity for online communication while still providing a direct line to the health department. GastroBusters lets diners anonymously report cases of suspected food poisoning to the city health department through an online form. The system has its critics in the restaurant industry who claim that anonymity may give rise to false accusations, and that the service is redundant in a department that already has a system for handling food poisoning reports, but city health officials stand by it. As Nsoesie and others have demonstrated, there is a disparity between what is reported through traditional channels and what is talked about online, and social media analysis and other non-traditional report systems may be the way to close that gap.

To track food recalls, Canadians can download Health Canada’s app for tracking recalls and safety alerts on both the Apple Store and Google Play.