“Twitter epidemiology” is a hot topic among public health professionals, as they investigate social media as a means of gathering data on unfolding health threats in the community. Perhaps one of the best uses of this new means of data collection is in tracking foodborne illnesses. Since many people who experience food poisoning treat it at home rather than visit a doctor or hospital, the incidence of food poisoning has long been recognized as underreported (Noesie, 2014). Social media, including online food and entertainment review sites and Twitter, are seen as a way to address that underreporting by identifying comments by users and “tweets” that report symptoms of food poisoning.
A recent MMWR issue reported on a project by the Chicago Department of Public Health which used Twitter to identify possible food poisoning complaints and follow up on them. The “Foodborne Chicago” site URL was provided in response to these online complaints, through which 193 complaints were submitted by users. In turn the health department inspected 133 restaurants as a result of these complaints, about 40 percent of which revealed health and safety violations.
The use of social media and online technologies to identify public health threats seems promising. Previous research has focused on the use of Google search analytics to help identify disease outbreaks. As far as foodborne illness specifically, the research so far has been limited. Most projects, including the Foodborne Chicago pilot, found similar results in surveillance via social media as compared to other methods. With further research, perhaps social media can become a mainstream adjunct to traditional methods of surveillance and follow-up for food poisoning outbreaks.