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Yelp Reviews Help NYC Health Department Find and Close Dirty Restaurants 64

Posted by samzenpus
from the bad-dates dept.
An anonymous reader writes with news about a study that investigated the effectiveness of Yelp reviews in pinpointing the source of foodborne illnesses. "In 2012, New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) found that residents weren't turning to the city's free 311 service to make such complaints, but rather they were reporting their experiences in Yelp reviews. So the CDC, in collaboration with the New York City DOHMH, Yelp, and Columbia University, conducted a nine-month long research into the effectiveness of using online reviews to identify sources of foodborne illnesses. The study discovered 468 actionable complaints, 97% of which hadn't been officially reported to the city, and analyzed roughly 294,000 Yelp restaurant reviews. Subsequent investigations on suspected restaurants turned up evidence of bare-handed food handling, cross-contamination, or even the presence of mice and cockroaches. The study concluded that providing the public with more options for reporting complaints about restaurants, particularly in the social media sphere, would help in the identification and possible closure of sources of foodborne illnesses."
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Yelp Reviews Help NYC Health Department Find and Close Dirty Restaurants

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  • Vermin in NYC? Surely not!

    • People don't like to think about it, but most restaurants have rats or roaches.
    • by sjames (1099)

      There's lots of vermin in NYC. Wall street is loaded with it. They also have rats and roaches.

  • CDC (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    For others who, like me, did not know what the "CDC" was, it is "Centers for Disease Control and Prevention".

  • Subsequent investigations on suspected restaurants turned up evidence of bare-handed food handling, cross-contamination, or even the presence of mice and cockroaches.

    Subsequent investigations? That says to me that the initial investigation was much like a typical NYC building inspection. The "inspector" drives up to the business, glances around the front of the building, then tells you which pile of building materials they would like dropped off in their driveway before signing off.

    Perhaps they should do their jobs which would result in finding things like mice and cockroaches, if not bare-handed food handling. Without that, my favorite solution to dirty restaurants (f

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I guess the big benefit here, is that very little human labor, on the part of the city, or the citizens, is required to find the suspicious restaurants. That suggests that having computers spy on people is more productive than having a web site to deal with customer complaints.

    • by sribe (304414) on Friday May 23, 2014 @08:46AM (#47073463)

      Dude, chill. "Subsequent" in this case obviously means subsequent to finding the bad Yelp review, not subsequent to to a prior inspection.

      Anyway, as to your suggestion: of all places, Alabama, where I grew up, has for several decades now required that the report be posted prominently near the entrance, such that you see it before you're seated or you can order. (Not only that, the inspector writes the grade across the whole thing with a fat marker in 6" high digits.) And I believe that it does make a significant difference. I was shocked to move out that state (with a well-deserved bad reputation for poor consumer-protection laws) and discover that in many other more "progressive" states the results of health inspections are hidden away.

      • by Grishnakh (216268)

        The "progressive" states in the northeast aren't progressive at all, they're backwards places with third-world infrastructure and worse corruption than Mexico. If you want "progressive", the best you'll find in the USA is the pacific northwest.

        • by sribe (304414)

          The "progressive" states in the northeast aren't progressive at all, they're backwards places with third-world infrastructure and worse corruption than Mexico. If you want "progressive", the best you'll find in the USA is the pacific northwest.

          Although those states were included in the ones that I was calling out for hiding health ratings, Colorado and California are also on the list.

      • by xaxa (988988)

        I was initially surprised when I saw a health rating on the wall, reasonably prominently, in a cheap Chinese restaurant in Nanjing. The rating was sad-face, blank-face or happy-face, and this place had blank-face.

        Then I remembered China had a few food scares recently, which makes it less surprising.

    • Perhaps they should do their jobs which would result in finding things like mice and cockroaches,

      Nothing like a rant based on nonsense to start the day. You obviously have never looked at the NYC Health Inspections web site where they list the reasons for the restaurant grade, including if they find mice droppings (or mice themselves). Here, let me show you the way [nyc.gov].

      In fact, Per Se, a well known restaurant, recently received a 'C' grade because of their violations [cnn.com].

      But go ahead and rant, it's
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        including if they find mice droppings (or mice themselves).

        I didn't suggest that they never in fact inspect a restaurant.

        What I said was that if they didn't find these things during an inspection, but then they found these things during another inspection, the first inspection was probably bullshit.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I came here specifically because I knew someone would bring up this point.

      Although I do not work in NYC (I'm from outside St. Louis, MO), I am an inspector for the county. Inspecting restaurants and other food-handling establishments is what I do every day, Monday through Friday and often on weekends as well when the weather is nice and people are selling food outside.

      Obviously I can't speak for every inspector in the entire country and there will always be slackers and bad apples in any group of people, b

    • by Albanach (527650)

      Subsequent investigations? That says to me that the initial investigation was much like a typical NYC building inspection.

      subsequent adjective :- coming after something in time;

      The investigation was subsequent to the Yelp review, not subsequent to an earlier investigation.

    • You presume the purpose of inspectors is to inspect for safety reasons. A quick glance around the world suggests the purpose beneath the meme is to get a way for low level government employees to increase their income via kickback. In exchange for this, they support the corrupt system.

      Why we in the us stomp our feet and pretend it's different here from the rest of the world I don't know.

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      Here in NJ and NYC, corruption is the norm. New Yorkers like to go on and on about how this is "the greatest city in the world", but it's really no better than a typical third-world cesspool, and probably even more corrupt.

  • by puddingebola (2036796) on Friday May 23, 2014 @08:20AM (#47073341) Journal
    Slashdot (One Star): Don't eat here! Most of the patrons and staff smelt of B.O., like they had been working for days on some late night software project. None of them had shaved or bathed in days. Food came directly out of a vending machine down the hall, same for the beverage choices. Menu items included Pop Tarts, Doritos, Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper. When I complained about the 3 inch roach in the break room I was told, "That's our mascot, Chubby."
  • by Anonymous Coward

    What's wrong with that exactly? It's arguably cleaner than gloved food handling as people wearing gloves wouldn't feel the need to constantly wash their hands, and instead continue handling food with dirty gloves.

    • by xaxa (988988)

      What's wrong with that exactly? It's arguably cleaner than gloved food handling as people wearing gloves wouldn't feel the need to constantly wash their hands, and instead continue handling food with dirty gloves.

      My thoughts too.

      When I worked in a food factory in the UK (summer job when I was 18) I handled food bare-handed, after it had been cooked. Assuming that was allowed (the factory had recently been inspected), why is it different in the USA? Or has the UK changed its rules in the last 10 years?

    • What's wrong with that exactly?

      It's the washing part that ain't happening. Rather than gather cultures from feckless-looking employees, its easier to look and see if they're wearing their gloves.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Rubber foodservice gloves are not magical, and using them does not instantly and permanently make your hands clean. The cleanliness problem in restaurants has very little to do with bacteria that comes directly from humans, it's cross contamination between cooked and uncooked foods. If I handle raw chicken with my gloves, then use those same gloves to put together your sandwich, the sandwich will be covered in bacteria from the raw chicken.

        I worked in food service for years, and this is a legitimate probl

        • by Grishnakh (216268)

          How about hiring people who actually understand sanitation, instead of people who don't?

          • I never saw the test, but in Oregon, employees have to take a class and be certified to work in restaurants.
            I like to think that hand-washing is part of the curriculum.

    • by Xicor (2738029)

      gloves are undoubtedly safer when used right... the thing is that generally speaking, people who dont use gloves dont wash their hands, and people who do use gloves dont replace the gloves after touching a specific food group.

      between the two though, the people who dont replace gloves are not as bad as those who dont wash their hands

    • Actually, washed bare hands are cleaner than using reusing plastic.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Bare-handed food handling is fine to me, as a consumer. If we're not talking about a cashier handling your money, then walking over to the food line to get your order ready, as long as people are washing their hands regularly, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Keeping the sick employees home without them being afraid of calling in and getting fired seems to be a greater issue.

    • by MattGWU (86623)

      The NY law is bare-handed contact with ready to eat food, if that makes it more or less ridiculous. Anything that's getting cooked is ok to touch. I think the point is it minimizes the risk of people NOT washing their hands regularly. You're right though, letting people call in would help a great deal.

      Food safety rules are nuts. I had to do ServSafe certification, and if you did everything you were supposed to be doing all the time, you'd never actually make any food, because you'd be too busy measuring

    • by CastrTroy (595695)
      Yeah, I worked at McDonald's in high school, and as a member of the kitchen staff, we didn't have to wear gloves. Basically, wash your hands before you start, and after breaks, as well as any other time you feel your hands need a washing. Probably works better than continuously wearing gloves, as most people would use the same gloves for the entire shift. Some ill-managed places where the staff have to constantly move between cash and food prep should probably require gloves, but those places tend to be
  • you report something, get a number and most times it won't get fixed
    or the city workers will just close it out to close the ticket. only time it is useful is if you park at a broken parking meter and put in a request to have it fixes to give yourself an out in case you get a ticket

  • by T.E.D. (34228) on Friday May 23, 2014 @09:30AM (#47073725)

    This sounds like a good idea to me. But if they are going to start using social media, why not take it one step further and actually post their inspections as "reviews" on Yelp? Send tweets out when they shut a place down. ("Shutting down @LaSemonlia for falsely labeling as "Chicken Quesadilla" their cucaracha surprise. #NoBueno")

  • by EmperorOfCanada (1332175) on Friday May 23, 2014 @09:39AM (#47073781)
    I know that restaurants have a love hate relationship with Yelp. They fear the petulant customer who will give them a bad yelp review because the restaurant didn’t kiss their feet. But I think that 99% of yelp reviewers know to ignore the occasional crap review knowing that it says more about the reviewer than the restaurant. So now the actually bad restaurant does have even more to fear from yelp. Back when I read my local newspaper and I noticed that some doctor had lost their licence I would check the rate my doctor site and see that in all but for a single doctor the reviews were typically, “Where did they get their licence? A cracker jack box?” or “A complete quack, I went in with a horribly sore leg after a ski accident and the bozo diagnosed me with heavy metal poisoning. I went to emerge and they said my leg was broken.” My only worry is that like slashdot, reddit, tripadvisor, and other voting sites that this will just be one more reason for evil companies to hire slimy PR firms to “manage” their reputations and the reputations of their competitors. More information by and for the public is only a good thing.
  • It looks to me like they should simply get Yelp to put a permanent prominent link on the bottom of their review form. The button could say "Forward this complaint to the Board of Health".

    Have it send an email to the appropriate person/group, based on the zipcode.

    Probably cheaper than the cost of a website.

    • by Albanach (527650)

      I think that would result in too many malicious reports from dissatisfied customers. They need to find the correct level of burden that doesn't dissuade someone who suspects poor food handling/hygiene from making a report but which does not encourage everyone who was served lukewarm soup or was upset at the limited selection of ice cream flavors to send the health inspectors round to visit.

      Certainly there could be a link at the bottom of the page, but it might want to ask for specific examples of poor hygie

  • My experience with a lot of these types of reviews is competing restaurant owners tend to use it as a way to mud sling, so it's tough to weed out false reviews from the real deal. Any customer who is inconsolable from an experience could be a fraud. Most people realize that mistakes can happen and place a higher level of respect for restaurants based on how they resolve an issue. Then there are the customers who just want free food and if they are denied it they are very nasty about it online. My proposed p

  • I think one reason people report poor conditions on Yelp a lot more than NYC's 311 number is because people get a sense of satisfaction reviewing things on yelp. You get little internet points the more reviews you make and you get to tell your friends (and annoy wait staff) by saying "I'm a big foodie, I have 173 Yelp reviews". This gives people an incentive to use Yelp that they don't have with calling 311.
  • fake reviews (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BradMajors (995624) on Friday May 23, 2014 @11:29AM (#47074551)

    The problem with using yelp reviews is some of the reviews are fake. Yelp staffers have been known to write negative reviews for companies that don't pay yelp.

    • by whovian (107062)

      Not only that, but they're known to give display preference to negative reviews if the company in question doesn't pay membership fees.

    • The yelp reviews provide a suggestion that there may be a problem; there is a health inspector who examines the restaurant based on the suggestion. If it's a fake yelp review and the restaurant does meet the standard, then the health inspector gives a good grade and there's no problem. On the other hand, if there's a fake yelp review and the restaurant does have problems--well, the restaurant deserves the failing grade; the false yelp review just gets the inspector there sooner than the normal review cycle.

  • Improper methodology (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Solandri (704621) on Friday May 23, 2014 @01:07PM (#47075791)

    The study discovered 468 actionable complaints, 97% of which hadn't been officially reported to the city, and analyzed roughly 294,000 Yelp restaurant reviews. Subsequent investigations on suspected restaurants turned up evidence of bare-handed food handling, cross-contamination, or even the presence of mice and cockroaches.

    Those don't sound like serious violations, they sound like things you can find anywhere if you just look hard enough. I can see bare-handed handling and cross-contamination happening anywhere, and you'd pretty much need a hermetically sealed room to avoid mice and cockroaches in NYC.

    How they should've done the study is mine Yelp for actionable complaints. Then send inspectors to those restaurants and an equal number of restaurants chosen at random without the inspectors knowing which set the restaurant belonged to. Then they could check to see if there was any statistical difference in inspection results between the Yelp-flagged set and the random set.

    Otherwise you're just serving up a heaping of confirmation bias. The idea of using online reviews to detect food-borne outbreaks by mining review sites is a good one, but it still needs to be properly vetted in a double-blind study.

    • Not enough data for proper methodology.

      Unless we somehow learn how big the bribes the restaurants pay the health inspectors and Yelp we will never know it this is a good money making scheme.

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