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Crowdsourcing Gathers Foodborne Illness Reports Together On One Site

After suffering through three bouts of foodborne illness and not being able to do much about it, Patrick Quade decided to try and help others who find themselves in a similar position. He established a website in 2009 for people to report their experiences of being sickened by restaurant food.

“The one where I had the idea to do it was a deli BLT,” he told Food Safety News. “It was one of those things where you call them and they’re like, ‘It wasn’t us, bye,’ and you do feel helpless. And maybe it wasn’t them. You’re kind of at a loose end at that point.”

Graphics - iwp aug 31 2015 v2 10.23.57 PMHis site, Iwaspoisoned.com, has now logged more than 30,000 reports of foodborne illness from individuals across the country naming restaurants, locations, symptoms, and other details, such as what the person ate, how they felt, and for how long. There’s also a way for people to comment on each report.

An incident posted Sept. 1 noted that someone in CA had become ill after eating a locally sourced meal: “I ate boiled new potatoes from Davis Coop, broccoli from UCD farmers market, grass fed organic cheddar cheese from a Trader Joes, and Kerry Gold unsalted butter. Two hours later I had nausea and vomited it all up. Also some diarrhea around same time.”

Another person, this one from FL, reported eating at a McDonald’s on Sept. 1: “Got there bacon mcdouble cheeseburger. My whole family had to be admitted that night. We all got deathly sick. It was horrible. Will not EVER eat there again.”

A visitor to the site can’t access the entire record of reported incidents going back to 2009, mainly because Quade thinks it’s unnecessary and could be unfair.

“I don’t want it to become like a witch hunt and see one company’s whole history. I don’t want to point fingers and stuff like that,” he says. “The other thing is there’s some really damning intel in that data that makes some restaurants look really bad compared to other restaurants, and I don’t want someone extracting data and compiling it and making some restaurant look terrible when maybe there’s some other factors.”

For example, he notes that there could be one geographic area with more iPhone users or more tech-savvy people who can more easily generate foodborne illness incident reports.

So far, Quade has noticed that some restaurants show up more often in the reports than others.

“There are some huge outliers out there and some better than you would think,” he says, adding that foodborne illnesses appear to be dispersed around the country and not centered in any particular regions.

However, when he’s looked at the reporting per capita and grouped the incidents into chain-owned restaurants compared to mostly company-owned restaurants, one trend is clear: The company-owned outlets have more foodborne illness problems.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-sick-woman-working-home-image49307080Quade can only guess why, but he suspects that having on-site managers hiring and supervising local employees might affect the situation.

The site played a role in the recent outbreak linked to a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, CA. According to an Aug. 22, 2015, CBS News report from Los Angeles, more than a dozen people posted the same symptoms there after eating at the same restaurant on the same day.

Quade is clear that he doesn’t know whether all the foodborne illness information that people submit to his site is accurate, but he posts a disclaimer noting that fact. He also states that people may report a foodborne illness when, in fact, it’s actually something else.

“Is my data perfect? No. That’s why I cut the data off,” he says. “If there’s 100 reports from one place, is that unusual? Maybe someone should take a look.”

He says that he gets visits and occasional comments from public health officials and some restaurants.

Plans for the site include comparative analyses and benchmark reports from the data for restaurants interested in what people are saying about their fare.

“I’ve offered it to one place, but I didn’t hear back. I have put an end user together with the restaurant, and they sent that person a letter,” he recalls. “As the site hopefully gets bigger and hopefully a force, I’d like to do more comparison charts.”

Quade says that launching the site hasn’t changed his eating habits much but has made him more aware of the dimensions of the foodborne illness problem in the U.S., which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates affects 48 million (roughly 1 in 6) people every year.

That number may not be an accurate estimate, he says, making information gathered on his site, and the prospect of followup action, even more critical.

“I think it’s a lot more than 50 million or even 70 million a year,” Quade says. “If you can reduce that by even 10 percent, it’s enormous.”

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