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Yelp restaurant reviews helping NYC officials to identify outbreaks of food poisoning

Health officials in New York City have turned to Yelp to help them track down restaurants with dodgy hygiene practices, with reviews on the site pointing them to possible incidents of food poisoning.

The online city guide has long been popular with restaurant fans keen to share their thoughts and opinions on their various dining experiences, with any unfortunate post-meal regurgitations inevitably getting a mention in reviews  occasionally with more details than strictly necessary.

As many diners fail to report food poisoning incidents to the authorities, Yelp has turned out to be a particularly rich source of data for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which this week revealed it’s been running an ongoing pilot project involving the analysis of nearly 300,000 Yelp restaurant reviews in the New York City area.

The department worked with Columbia University to create software used to analyze 294,000 restaurant reviews across a nine-month period. Besides tracking down the kinds of words you really don’t want to have to associate with food-related establishments (“sick”, “vomit” and “diarrhea” are given as examples by the health department), the software also pulls together reviews where two or more reports of illness are mentioned within a 12- to 36-hour time period at the same premises, providing health officials with enough data to further investigate possible outbreaks of food poisoning.

Yelp, which last year started adding hygiene scores to restaurant listings, has been particularly useful for the authorities as it enables them to contact affected diners for interviews to help build a case against an eatery that may be flouting public health laws.

The study has so far led to the discovery of three food poisoning outbreaks involving 16 people, the health department said, adding that none had been previously reported.

Following visits to the restaurants where the incidents had occurred, the authorities found one of the establishments to be playing host to a lot more than just diners, with a search of the premises turning up live roaches and evidence of “mouse activity”  a description which may lead many food fans to skip the ‘chocolate surprise’ dessert on their next restaurant visit.

[CDC via NY Times] [Image: Gil C / Shutterstock]

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