A New York City project found that restaurant review websites can help health officials trace unreported food poisoning through member reviews and comments.

Online city guide Yelp is popular among restaurant fans who are keen on sharing their opinions and experiences on various dining encounters. Occasionally, there are post-meal reviews that mention unfortunate details.

Through this project, health inspectors discovered three unreported food poisoning by looking through 300,000 reviews on Yelp. The incidents were minor that blamed for 16 illnesses together. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene  (DOHMH) looked for foodborne illnesses which are a sign of sanitation inadequacy. From 2012 to 2013, there were 294,000 restaurant reviews that yielded 893 comments containing the words "diarrhea," "food poisoning" or "sick." More than 50 percent may be considered as a potential foodborne illness. Some reported symptoms that occurred within 10 hours of dining without other meals before being sick.

After sifting through the reviews, there were three restaurants involved in unreported outbreaks. Unfortunately, the officials are not announcing the names of the restaurants. The report found food handling violations at three establishments such as not properly storing food in refrigerators, presence of cockroaches and mice and not washing hands before touching the food.

"We know we don't identify all of the outbreaks that are out there, and this is just another tool to do that," senior investigator and medical epidemiologist Dr. Sharon Balter said. "We have a lot of reviewers and a lot of restaurants in New York, which made this a good place to try it out." The software identified 468 potential cases of food poisoning that happened recently. Fifteen of these were reported as a nonemergency at the 311 line dedicated for such cases. There were 30 identified restaurant-based outbreaks every year. The contaminated foods were lobster and shrimp cannelloni, house salads and macaroni and cheese spring rolls.

DOHMH will continue to refine the project and shorten the amount of time from review to investigation. The city continues to monitor restaurant reviews on Yelp and generates a report daily as opposed to weekly. It will also be expanded to include other review websites. DOHMH will also hold electronic surveys and link multiple complaints on the same establishments from different review websites. The project aims to improve detection of foodborne diseases and outbreaks. Similar programs may be developed to detect other hazards to public health such as vermin in restaurants.

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