60-Second Health

Tweets Identify Food Poisoning Outbreaks

In Chicago monitoring Twitter for reports of food poisoning led to 133 restaurant inspections for health violations, with 21 establishments shut down. Dina Fine Maron reports

On May 15th, 2013, Chicago magazine dining critic Jeff Ruby tweeted the following:
“When Nietzsche said "That which does not kill you makes you stronger," he obviously never had food poisoning from a Lebanese restaurant.”
Such Twitter messages are now being flagged by the Chicago Department of Public Health to spot food establishments that may be making patrons ill. The tweets elicit a reply from health agency workers linking them to a complaint form that will help identify problematic places.
During a 10-month stretch last year, staff members at the health agency responded to 270 tweets about “food poisoning.” Based on those tweets, 193 complaints were filed and 133 restaurants in the city were inspected. Twenty-one were closed down and another 33 were forced to fix health violations. That’s according to a study in the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. [Jenine K. Harris et al, Health Department Use of Social Media to Identify Foodborne Illness — Chicago, Illinois, 2013–2014]
And study researcher Jenine Harris at the Washington University in St. Louis says that health officials in Boston and New York are also looking to tap Twitter in the future.
Many food poisoning victims do not seek treatment, but still complain to their friends, and now their Twitter followers. Such social media surveillance could help put a lid on food-borne disease outbreaks.
—Dina Fine Maron
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
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