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Yelp Can Help Spot Food Poisonings at Restaurants

The online review service was used to identify several foodborne outbreaks in New York City

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Balter did not find it discouraging that hundreds of complaints of illness on Yelp resulted in only a handful of confirmed outbreaks. She noted that of the 3,000 or so food-poisoning complaints received by the 311 service each year, only about 1 percent end up confirmed as a restaurant-related outbreak.

"In any surveillance system like this, there will be a lot of noise," she said. "The exciting thing for us is we could sort through that noise and find actual cases."

The New York City inspectors said they plan to continue using the software to scan for possible food-poisoning outbreaks. They will refine their methods by performing daily, instead of weekly, scans of Yelp reviews, and will expand the project to include other review sites.

Richard Hanley, an associate journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., said, "Yelp is one of the emerging crowd-engaged tools health officials can use to track the emergence and spread of illnesses across geographical areas. Twitter, likewise, is a useful tool to pinpoint the onset of food-borne and other illnesses. All ought to be part of the surveillance toolkit," he added.

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