Santa Clara County epidemiologists currently aren’t using Yelp in their Shigella investigation, and the reviewers apparently were not out ahead of public-health officials in this case.
But earlier research suggests that Yelp reviews may act as an early warning system or identify potential patients that public-health officials might not otherwise have found in their food-borne illness investigations, especially if the reviewer did not seek medical care after falling ill.
Public-health workers in New York, aided by Columbia University researchers, scanned thousands of Yelp reviews in 2012 and 2013 to find previously undetected food-borne illness, unearthing nearly 900 cases that were worthy of further investigation by epidemiologists. Ultimately, the researchers found three previously unreported restaurant-related outbreaks linked to 16 illnesses that would have merited a public-health investigation if officials had known of them at the time. Follow-up inspections of the restaurants found food-handling violations.
In another study, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital analyzed more than 5,800 Yelp reviews of food-services businesses near 29 colleges in 15 states, concluding that reviews describing food poisoning tracked closely with food-borne illness data maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The timeliness and often-graphic details of the reviews could prove useful for public-health agencies investigating food-poisoning outbreaks, the researchers concluded.
Researchers also have examined Twitter and Facebook as possible food-borne-illness surveillance tools, and Chicago’s public-health agency automatically sends information about its Foodborne Chicago reporting site to local Twitter users who complain of food poisoning.
But Yelp’s usefulness for epidemiologists is going to depend a lot on how it handles food poisoning complaints down the road.
The company has been accused of approaching restaurants to remove negative reviews in exchange for advertising dollars, although a class-action lawsuit on those grounds was dismissed.
At the same time, Yelp is wrestling with how to handle reviews for businesses that become controversial overnight, serving as magnets for irate reviewers who have not patronized the business and just want to make a point.
On Tuesday, the company placed an “Active Cleanup Alert” notice on Mariscos San Juan #3’s review page noting that because the business “recently made waves in the news,” Yelp would “remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business.”
While some reviews were easily visible, others were segregated into Yelp’s “not currently recommended” category, which requires readers to click to see them and do not figure in the establishment’s overall rating.