'I Was Poisoned': Can Crowdsourcing Food Illnesses Help Stop Outbreaks?
In 2008, Patrick Quade ducked out of his office at Morgan Stanley in Manhattan and stopped at a corner deli for a BLT wrap. The next day he suffered explosive diarrhea and was vomiting so violently, "it was like some force was just wringing my stomach out." When he called the deli to report the incident, they said they were not to blame and hung up on him.
"Food poisoning kills 3,000 people a year," says Quade. "I thought to myself, I don't know for sure it was the deli. But what if 30 or 40 people in the neighborhood went to that deli and also got sick? Who would know?"
Quade has a point. Though the American food supply is among the safest in the world, there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness per year, resulting in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the FDA.
Quade, who is now 46 years old, had no website coding experience and no background in food safety, but shortly after that incident, he founded iwaspoisoned.com, a crowdsourcing website where individuals can report food-poisoning incidents, public health officials can receive instant local alerts, and the food industry can be apprised of outbreaks early on.
Today, Quade works on his site full time, boasting over 1.7 million page views and more than 75,000 reports from 90 countries and 46 U.S. states since the site's inception. In addition, 20,000 consumers and 350 health agencies subscribe to the site's daily alert service; custom alerts are available for state department agencies.
The site is still early in its adoption curve, but has already correctly identified outbreaks before health officials knew — including one at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Simi Valley, Calif., in 2015; an Applebee's in Michigan in 2016; a Melting Pot in Tacoma, Wash., in 2017; and at a dining hall at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta this past October. In these cases, when there is a cluster of reports, the website notifies local officials, as happened earlier this year for a Wisconsin sandwich shop, Jimmy John's, that ultimately sickened 100 individuals. In that outbreak, the Marathon County Health Department, which subsequently collected stool samples from victims, identified norovirus, and required the shop to close for disinfection and deep cleaning before reopening.
The site's interface is user-friendly: Individuals can log on and name restaurants or venues, locations, symptoms, duration of symptoms, what they ate, whether they saw a doctor or reported the incident to the local health department. Other members can comment on the reports. An August report from New York City read: "Went to the ER on 8/8 via an ambulance for severe dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea over a 12 hour period ... ate a steak burrito with fajitas, hot salsa, mild salsa, sour cream and cheese." A Winter Garden, Fla., report: "My 6 year old is violently ill after eating a chicken bowl ... crumpled in a ball with terrible cramps."
Local health inspectors praise the site. "It makes our job as food police easier," says David Banasynski, who is the health inspector for Schaumburg, Ill., a city of 50,000 residents. "The county usually forwards any complaints they receive to me, but the problem is that it can take days or weeks, whereas a crowdsourcing website is instantaneous. I get a complaint a minute after somebody puts it up on the website, and I can get over to that property an hour later." That, says Banasynski, might stop an outbreak before it has a chance to spread to dozens or hundreds.
"The site is particularly good at identifying norovirus outbreaks," says food safety scientist and microbiologist Lee Ann Jaykus of North Carolina State University. Jaykus was impressed enough with the site to join its advisory board in 2016. Currently, she says, there is no standard reporting procedure for food poisoning at all — and many people call it a 24-hour bug, recover and don't bother to visit the doctor or report the incident. In the case of norovirus, "We simply don't have a good surveillance system. We don't know how often norovirus outbreaks actually happen in association with food. Patrick's site will be very helpful in that regard."
Another benefit, Jaykus believes, will be what the food industry calls "benchmarking" — a large chain will now be able to identify problematic retail facilities that keep popping up in reports. "They can say, let's go visit this facility and be sure their safety practices are appropriate."
However, there are potential downsides — and one obvious one is that individuals might incorrectly attribute a food poisoning incident to the last place they ate, when the actual culprit was a day or two before. "Most people think the last place they ate got them sick, but often that's not the case," says Banasynski. "I take a 72-hour history — what you ate, what you drank, whether you went swimming or were out of the country."
Some strains of E. coli can take up to nine days to cause symptoms, while listeria can take nine hours. A good place to check is the FDA's Foodborne Illnesses: What You Need to Know.
Just one incorrect accusation — no matter how innocent — can damage a venue's reputation, which is what happened when Supergirl actor Jeremy Jordan briefly sent shares of the already-beleaguered Chipotle Mexican Grill tumbling. Jordan posted an Instagram story earlier this month from his hospital bed, saying that he'd eaten at Chipotle and that "the food did not agree with me and I almost died." Chipotle denied the link, noting that there were no other illness reports.
Quade says his website is like a real-time monitor, and that single reports are not conclusive, but "a cluster of reports around a venue or source of food can be a powerful indicator."
Another concern is that individuals with a grievance might make malicious food-poisoning accusations — not unlike malicious dining reviews on Yelp or Facebook. To help avoid any so-called witch hunts, Quade makes sure visitors cannot access the entire record of reported incidents going back to 2009. "I don't want someone extracting and compiling data to make a restaurant look terrible," he says.
Cherie Ferster, a 42-year-old in San Francisco, Calif., says the site's regular reports helped her feel safer after a particularly horrific case of food poisoning this past October. "I had used Instacart to order my favorite burrito from Whole Foods for lunch," she says. "About six hours later I was suddenly really hot and nauseated and barely made it to bathroom in time to projectile vomit. I was sick for six days, and was about to go to the emergency room when I finally started recovering." She called Whole Foods, which reported the incident and put her in touch with the health department.
Nonetheless, the experience spooked her so much that for several weeks Ferster says she was anxious whenever she ate. She says the site helps allay that anxiety. "Now that I get reports, I feel like at least I know what places in my vicinity to avoid. It's reassuring."
For his part, Quade says that if his site can reduce the nearly 50 million food poisoning incidents a year by even 10 percent, "that would be enormous. That would be 5 million people spared from a very unpleasant illness."
Jill Neimark is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has been featured in Discover, Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, Psychology Today and The New York Times.
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