Social media used to track foodborne illness outbreaks

Health officials search for clues to track outbreaks

SAN ANTONIO – The words "food poisoning" are not what you want to see when you search Yelp or other social media outlets to check out a new restaurant. And while social media is not always the most reliable source,  some health officials across the country are using it to try to track outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

People love to post about their meals. That's why Thomas Effland, a Ph.D. student, and his team of developers at Columbia Engineering created a program that hunts for complaints of food poisoning on Yelp and Twitter.

"Basically, it picks up on keywords and key phrases that you as a person would associate with it, (like) 'I got sick' or 'I got food poisoning,'" Effland said.

That information is then used by the New York City Health Department to review the claims. The program has helped detect 10 outbreaks, according to one study.

Harvard Medical School, as well as health departments in Chicago and Nevada, are also using social media to search for cases of food poisoning.

Effland cautions consumers not to let a single online claim steer their dining choices.

"Anybody can write a review," he said. "So any individual review is really not enough to make a decision."

If someone is really concerned about whether there's an outbreak at a restaurant, Consumer Reports advises they consult with their local health department. 

Anyone who suspects they were served something that made them sick should also contact local health authorities so it can be properly investigated.

About the Author:

As a consumer reporter, Marilyn is all about helping people stay safe and save a buck. Since coming to KSAT in 1985, she’s covered everything from crime to politics, winning awards for her coverage of the Mexican Mafia, Oklahoma tornadoes, children’s transplants, an investigation into voting irregularities and even a hit-and-run Santa Claus.