New York City Is Using Yelp to Nab Restaurants That Make Us Sick

Gotham's health department teamed up with the review site to find and track establishments that are spreading food-borne illnesses.

(Photo: Seb Oliver/Getty Images)

May 27, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

If you get sick after eating out, chances are you’re going to curl up in a ball and hope your stomachache and diarrhea quickly disappear. You might even leave a “steer clear—it gave me food poisoning” review on Yelp. Well, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene figured all your negative comments on Yelp are worth paying attention to. It teamed up with the site and Columbia University for a pilot project that sorted through thousands of reviews to track down Big Apple restaurants guilty of spreading food-borne illnesses.

Researchers working on the initiative, which ran between July 2012 and March 2013, combed through about 294,000 Yelp reviews for key words such as “sick,” and “vomit,” reported NBC News. The team found 893 comments that indicated the Yelp user had been a victim of a food-borne illness. Just 15 of those incidents were reported to the health department.

That’s because most of us don’t think about calling our local health department after we get sick. A report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that reports of food-borne illnesses like E. coli and salmonella dropped 40 percent between 2001 and 2010. This isn’t due to a sudden increase in employee hand-washing or roaches and rats avoiding restaurant kitchens. It’s because of the public’s lack of reporting. But even if they’re not reporting their illness to the government, folks are telling someone about the meal that made them sick—they’re telling Yelp.

Thanks to the investigation into the cases of illness culled from Yelp reviews, the health department launched three investigations, which required the research team to reach out to Yelp users and interview them about their experiences.

“The big issues were bare hand contact with food,” Dr. Sharon Balter, who worked on the project, told NBC News. “Also what we call cross-contamination in the fridge. If you have meat or poultry that is raw you don’t want it to contaminate fresh, ready-to-eat food.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 48 million Americans a year are sickened by food-borne illness; about 3,000 of them die. Because of the scope of the problem, Dr. Balter said she and her team plan to refine the project so they can more efficiently track down illness outbreaks and health code violations. The researchers also recommended that other health departments across the nation “consider additional surveillance methods” like Yelp and Twitter to get feedback from “those more likely to post a restaurant review online than contact a health department.”