Southern California

Social Media Exposes Dining Dangers Hidden by Health Department

Consumers are now turning to social media not just to see if a restaurant serves good food, but to find out if it’s safe and clean

When Hannah Berryman and her co-workers went for lunch at a popular Mexican restaurant in March, they thought it was a nice way to break up the day. She didn’t expect to end up missing the next three days of work because of violent nausea and stomach pain.

“The stomach cramps were unbearable,” Berryman told NBC4. She wasn’t sure what had made her sick. Lying in bed, she went on Twitter and Yelp, looking for postings about the Mexican restaurant, Don Antonio’s on West Pico Boulevard in LA.

Berryman found numerous warnings on Yelp about Don Antonio’s: “Do not go to this restaurant,” “We all ended up the emergency room,” and “It is salmonella.”

“The light bulb went off then. It (the restaurant food) was the only thing that made sense,” Berryman says.

Using social media, and internal health department records, the NBC4 I-Team found evidence that least 27 people were sickened — some confirmed with salmonella — from eating at Don Antonio’s in late March.

Increasingly, consumers are using social media — like Twitter and Yelp -- to expose and uncover possible food poisoning at restaurants, since health departments usually keep outbreaks secret from the public.

“There is absolutely no excuse for public health departments not to tell the public about a confirmed outbreak at a public restaurant,” says Bill Marler, one of the nation’s top food safety attorneys. “Something like Yelp can really be an early-warning system for foodborne illness outbreaks.”

So can other social media, like Twitter.

“Thank you Nobu Malibu for giving NAS and I severe food poisoning,” A Saleh tweeted to his 5300 followers last November.

Internal health department records obtained by the I-Team show there was in fact an outbreak of Norovirus at the posh Malibu sushi restaurant in November that the health department never made public.

And websites like TripAdvisor can also be helpful tools. When you type “Don Antonio’s” into TripAdvisor, the second review is titled “SALMONELLA POISONING. Don’t go here.”

After questioning by the I-Team, the Director of LA County Environmental Health said the county would rethink its practice of not telling the public about food poisoning outbreaks.

“There’s some real merit to providing that information,” Director Angelo Bellomo said. “People deserve that information.”

People are already getting some of that information by searching social media but they have to take the initiative and check before dining out. To find warnings about food poisoning at restaurants, type in the name of the restaurant in Yelp, TripAdvisor or other review website search boxes and try search terms like “food poisoning,” “salmonella, or “sick.”

When the I-Team used those terms on a Yelp to do a search of the popular Hokkaido Seafood Buffet at the Westside Pavillion, we found 14 warnings, complaining of “complete food poisoning” and “intestinal cramping.”

And even the health department is now using social media to investigate outbreaks. After Hannah Berryman posted a Yelp review about getting sick at Don Antonio’s, she got a message back on Yelp from Dr. Roshan Reporter, a Department of Public Health epidemiologist, asking her to file a complaint about her illness. “This will help us investigate the illness,” Dr. Reporter said on Yelp.

“I don’t think we should have to go to a third party like Yelp for those things,” says Berryman, who was sickened at Don Antonio’s. She added, “social media is my way to vet a lot of things and restaurants are one of them.”

NBC4 asked Don Antonio’s and Nobu Malibu to comment on the reports of food poisoning at their restaurants. Neither returned our calls.

A spokesman for Hokkaido Seafood Buffet, Pei Lin, said “our food is 100% clean and safe.” He added that the restaurant is a buffet style restaurant and that if people are complaining of feeling sick after eating there, he thinks it’s because they ate too much.

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