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Health Departments Now Crowdsourcing Foodborne Illness

The fact of the matter is, the Internet has been a great thing for those who own and operate restaurants. It’s no secret that online reviews have been a major force in the restaurant industry for decades now. Restaurant owners covet great reviews from their patrons on websites and apps like Yelp and Google. They love it when they read a rave review on their website or their Facebook page. Many restaurants are so convinced of the crowdsourcing potential of social media, they often openly ask customers to say something nice about them on one or more outlets. Most restaurants realize that creating buzz is a major factor in their success or failure as a business.

Crowdsourcing Foodborne Illness

What is happening now, though, may change their mind about crowdsourcing and social media. Those outlets are now poised to become important new tools in the fight against foodborne illnesses like salmonella, E. coli, cyclosporine and many others. While public health officials are cautiously optimistic about this development, many restaurant owners are somewhat nervous about it.

In one example, Florida state investigators have taken to tracking reports of alleged food poisoning on a website named Iwaspoisoned.com and on social media sites Twitter and Facebook. On Iwaspoisoned.com, anyone can report their own illness if they believe it is tied to food consumed at specific restaurants. While many reports include names and contact information, there is also the potential to report anonymously. That is the aspect of crowdsourcing foodborne illness information that has restaurateurs worried; the potential to make false reports or to misuse such a system.

The number of foodborne illnesses has been rising in recent years, which is why so many health departments around the country are working so hard to find a solution for reporting instances of illness related to foodborne pathogens. This is a big problem; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 48 million Americans are hit with a foodborne illness every year, with 128,000 of them being sick enough to be hospitalized every year and 3,000 or so dying.

A Prevalent Problem: Is This a Solution?

The Iwaspoisoned.com website is still very new, but it is quickly catching on. So far, the site has received more than 75,000 reports of foodborne illness from 90 countries and 46 U.S. states. More importantly, in addition to 20,000 consumers who subscribe to the site’s news alert service, more than 350 health agencies also subscribe. That is in addition to the custom alerts that are available for state and local health departments. And it has already been helpful in identifying outbreaks even before health department officials knew about it.

For example, the site was able to identify a Wisconsin norovirus outbreak that eventually sickened 100 people, and was able to pinpoint the source, a sandwich shop that the Marathon County Health Department subsequently closed for deep cleaning and disinfection. This past October, health officials were able to identify an outbreak that started at a dining hall at a college in Georgia. Earlier in the year, they were able to identify norovirus outbreaks at restaurants in the states of Washington and Michigan. The site was also instrumental in identifying the high-profile norovirus case that began at a national chain restaurant in Virginia.

In all of those cases, health officials were able to consult the site and determine there was a problem before they had to wait for people to make reports to them and then compile the data and conduct an investigation. Crowdsourcing and social media simply make it easier for the public to track where there are problems, and the site emails the information it compiles to the appropriate state and local health departments, so they can address the problems.

The Downside of Crowdsourcing

Many restaurants are nervous about the potential for abuse when it comes to the use of crowdsourcing and social media to allow the public to get the word out. They openly worry about false or malicious reports, but they are also nervous about the potential for customers to make reports that are either malicious or mistaken. For example, many who get sick blame the last restaurant they visited, when the culprit may be one the visited a day or two earlier. They note that many foodborne illnesses take between two hours and 10 days to develop, so the naming the last restaurant visited is questionable.

Of course, many food safety professionals seem to believe the positives will outweigh the potential negatives. Some believe the potential for a public relations disaster will actually serve to make the restaurants more careful when handling food. While they don’t believe the restaurant owners’ worries are unfounded, they praise the idea that information will get out there more easily and warn the public of a potential problem.

Food safety experts encourage anyone who gets sick after eating to visit a doctor immediately and get accurate information about their illness. However, when multiple people report an illness and name the same restaurant, that indicates a problem and warrants an investigation. Also, multiple reports is usually enough to encourage a restaurant to go back and recheck their food handling systems and possibly improve them, which is good for everyone.

Food Poisoning