Identifying foodborne outbreaks using social media

As a new survey shows 95% of chefs cite customers getting sick as their top concern, a computer system developed by Columbia University with Health Department epidemiologists can detect foodborne illness and outbreaks in New York City restaurants based on keywords in Yelp reviews.

Using Yelp, 311, and reports from health care providers, the Health Department has identified and investigated approximately 28,000 complaints of suspected foodborne illness overall since 2012 and helped Health Department staff identify approximately 1,500 complaints of foodborne illness in NYC each year, for a total of 8,523 since July 2012.

Improvements to the computer system are the subject of a joint study published this week by the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. The Health Department and Columbia continue to expand the system to include other social media sources, such as Twitter, which was added to the system in November 2016. The computer system allows the Health Department to investigate incidents and outbreaks that might otherwise go undetected. New Yorkers are encouraged to call 311 to report any suspected foodborne illness.

“Working with our partners at Columbia University, the Health Department continues to expand its foodborne illness surveillance capabilities,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett. “Today we not only look at complaints from 311, but we also monitor online sites and social media. I look forward to working with Columbia University on future efforts to build on this system. The Health Department follows up on all reports of foodborne illness – whether it is reported to 311 or Yelp.”

Each year,

“Effective information extraction regarding foodborne illness from social media is of high importance–online restaurant review sites are popular and many people are more likely to discuss food poisoning incidents in such sites than on official government channels,” said Luis Gravano and Daniel Hsu, who are coauthors of the study and professors of Computer Science at Columbia Engineering. “Using machine learning has already had a significant impact on the detection of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.”

“The collaboration with Columbia University to identify reports of food poisoning in social media is crucial to improve foodborne illness outbreak detection efforts in New York City,” said Health Department epidemiologists Vasudha Reddy and Katelynn Devinney, who are coauthors of the publication. “The incorporation of new data sources allows us to detect outbreaks that may not have been reported and for the earlier identification of outbreaks to prevent more New Yorkers from becoming sick.”

“I applaud DOHMH Commissioner Bassett for embracing the role that crowdsourcing technology can play in identifying outbreaks of foodborne illness. Public health must be forward-thinking in its approach to triaging both everyday and acute medical concerns,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Most restaurant-associated outbreaks are identified through the Health Department’s complaint system, which includes 311, Yelp, and reports from health care providers. Since 2012, the Department has identified and investigated approximately 28,000 suspected complaints of foodborne illness overall. The Health Department reviews and investigates all complaints of suspected foodborne illness in New York City.

A giant E. coli statue in New York City

John Metcalfe of City Lab writes there is now a giant statue of an E. coli microbe in City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan.

“Earth Potential: E. coli” is based on a 10,000-times magnified electron-microscope image of the fecal bacterium that causes 265,000 infections in the U.S. yearly, with symptoms including cramps and diarrhea. Made from a digital print on cut-out aluminum, it rests in City Hall Park as part of the larger exhibition, “Earth Potential,” by the Estonian artist Katja Novitskova. The show intends to portray “organisms and bodies” that have “significant research value within the scientific community for their potential to advance our understanding of our species and world,” according to the non-profit Public Art Fund. Aside from E. coli, the other pieces in the show include a huge earthworm, a slippery nematode, and a human embryo magnified to resemble a clump of moldy peaches.

Only certain strains of E. coli cause gut-churning maladies; others are beneficial components of the human intestines and boons to science. As the show’s primer explains: “E. coli has been at the center of groundbreaking research: Genetic engineers have used new synthetic biological techniques to recode the bacteria’s genome, potentially changing the organism’s functionality and radically increasing the prospect that humans will have the ability to rewrite the codes for life.”


‘Defendants as dirty as their restaurants’ arrested for bribing monitors over food violations

Aidan Gardiner of DNA Info reports three restaurateurs were arrested this week for bribing city monitors to not penalize them for violations including flies, handling food without gloves and keeping a lizard in a fish tank, officials said.

bribeMorie Kabba of The Bronx was arrested Monday while Jonathan Niranjan and Mohammad Safi, who run establishments in Queens, were arrested Tuesday, according to Department of Investigation officials. They all face bribery charges and up to seven years behind bars, officials said.

“DOI’s investigation found these defendants were as dirty as their restaurants,” said Mark Peters, the DOI commissioner.

“In New York City, you can’t clean up a dirty restaurant with a bribe. DOI will continue to pursue unscrupulous business owners and operators who try to corrupt city employees for their own interests,” Peters said.

In each investigation, the men first bribed inspectors with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene who refused the money, but reported it to DOI which then sent undercover officers to each restaurant.

The undercover inspectors, spotted uncovered garbage cans, multiple flies and food residue on the floor of Jagana Family Kennedy Fried Chicken at 1375 Boston Road in Morrisania in October and reported it to Kabba, 42, officials said.

Kabba in turn gave the investigator $160, officials said.

Kabba was arraigned Monday and pleaded not guilty, officials said. He was released and due back in court on Jan. 17, 2017, officials said.

Similarly, a health inspector spotted an aquarium with a lizard inside Amazura, a music venue at 91-12 144th Place in Jamaica, and told Niranjan, 28, he’d have to remove it, officials said. Niranjan then told the inspector he forgot something in the bathroom, prompting the inspector to return inside and find “a wad of cash” on top of the sink, officials said.

An undercover inspector then visited the establishment in August and spotted a broken sink faucet, many flies and food handlers not using gloves, officials said. Niranjan then gave the undercover $300 in cash to “save him on some of the violations,” officials said.

Undercover investigators in May also spotted uncovered garbage cans, a broken sink faucet and staff touching food with bare hands inside Farm Fried N Curry Chicken at 120-20 Merrick Blvd. in South Jamaica, officials said.


Pigeons: Rats with wings (and Salmonella factories)

Sane New Yorkers regard them as rats with wings, and they make use of the many tools to combat pigeons on their property. But things get complicated when a neighboring property owner doesn’t care that pigeons are emitting toxic piles of excrement in a shared space between buildings.

pigeon-rats-wingsSuch was the case on the Upper West Side, where pigeons set up housekeeping on a grocery store’s outdoor air vents and cooling system. Residents of a co-op that shares a courtyard with the grocery store hired an exterminator, but the nests remain. The store’s management did not respond to calls. What’s a co-op board to do?

“The mere presence of pigeon droppings in the courtyard is an unsanitary condition” and could be grounds for a violation, Kempshall McAndrew, a real estate lawyer at Anderson Kill, tells the New York Times’ Ask Real Estate column. The board should keep the courtyard free of pigeon droppings in case an inspector visits.

Beyond that, McAndrew advises the co-op board to call the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene directly, bypassing 311. The board should photograph the area, documenting the nests as the source of the problem. It should also keep records of calls to the grocery store and of the exterminator’s efforts.

Barf on the subway: 7 left with breathing issues

Paramedics took seven people to the hospital when they complained of suddenly feeling lightheaded after a stranger vomited at a Harlem subway station early Tuesday, cops said.

santa-barf_sprout_raw_milk7-2The FDNY and police briefly evacuated the E. 125th St. station on the 4, 5 and 6 line about 9:15 a.m.

A police source said someone threw up and the other people became ill from the smell of the vomit.

The victims, who were on multiple trains, complained of having difficulty breathing. They were taken to Harlem Hospital for evaluation as a precaution, officials said.

Trains bypassed the station until about 9:50 a.m. while the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit conducted air quality tests.

The tests came back negative for toxins, according to the MTA.

How the brown rat conquered New York City

Our garage door didn’t work in Kansas, so we parked our car outside.

The cats would bring gifts to the doorstep every morning – a reliably good indicator of what species of rat, squirrel, bird or something else was flourishing that reproductive year.

sq-willard-crispin-glover-rat-nlThe dogs also took a tag-team approach, with the cocker spaniel sniffing out the rabbits nests, and the border-collie-pit-bull mutt finishing them off.

But there was this one time, they missed the rats.

Went to start the car in the morning and it was dead.

Wouldn’t boost.

Took it to the shop and they had a verdict in about 5 minutes.


It was starting to get cold that season, and the mechanic said it was common for rats to seek the protection, and sometimes warmth from auto engines, and gnaw away at various wires.

Said he saw it all the time.

Carl Zimmer of the New York Times writes that despite their ubiquity, Rattus norvegicus, otherwise known as the brown rat, remains surprisingly mysterious. Scientists have only a hazy idea of how it went from wild rodent to unwanted human companion.

“They’ll gnaw through walls. They’ll gnaw through wires. They’ll destroy cars,” said Jason Munshi-South, a biologist at Fordham University. “They’ve managed to spread wherever there are humans.”

Now Dr. Munshi-South and his colleagues have completed the first in-depth genetic study of brown rats from around the world. Their story has twists and turns that surprise even the experts.

After spreading slowly for thousands of years, the scientists found, brown rats scampered over much of the planet in just the past three centuries. And once brown rats settle into a new city, the new study suggests, they repel all newcomers — a finding that could have big implications for our health.

Dr. Munshi-South said the study emerged from a simple question: “What is a New York City rat, and where did it come from?”

house-kansasHe contacted researchers around the world to see if he could obtain DNA to compare with that of the rats he captures around New York City. To his surprise, he ended up with samples from hundreds of brown rats, from the Galápagos Islands to Brazil, from New Zealand to Japan.

Instead of simply asking where New York City’s brown rats came from, Dr. Munshi-South realized he might be able to figure out where the world’s brown rats came from.

Emily E. Puckett, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, analyzed the DNA samples, sorting 314 brown rats from 30 countries into clusters of genetic relatives. Eventually, she was able to determine how different populations of the rats mixed together over time.

Dr. Puckett, Dr. Munshi-South and their colleagues published their findings last week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.

The brown rat is sometimes called the Norway rat, but the new research confirms that the name is a misnomer. Instead, brown rats originated in northern China or Mongolia. Before they became our companions, they fed on wild plants and small animals on cold, open plains.

Farming came relatively late to northern China, but at some point, native brown rats, finding a reliable food supply in their midst, switched to living on farms and in villages.

Dr. Puckett and her colleagues can’t say how long brown rats remained in northern China, but at some point, they started to expand their range. Their first migration, the study suggests, took them to southeastern Asia.

Tanner holds up a freshly-caught rat.

Tanner holds up a freshly-caught rat.

Much later, a wave of brown rats spread northeast, into Japan and Siberia. Another emigrated west, eventually reaching Europe in what appear to have been three major arrivals on the Continent. These rats may have traveled on overland routes, or perhaps hidden on ships that sailed along the coasts of Asia and Europe.

The new study suggests that brown rats were slower to spread around the globe than our other familiars, the black rat and the house mouse. Geography may be the reason: House mice originated in the Fertile Crescent, and black rats in India.

Farming societies and widespread trade arose in those places much earlier than in northern China, giving the black rat and the house mouse early opportunities to travel.

But in the past three centuries, the brown rat has more than made up for lost time.

Brown rats in Alaska and along the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada can trace much of their ancestry to Russia, Dr. Puckett and her colleagues found. Their ancestors may have stowed away aboard ships that traveled to fur-trapping communities in the New World in the 1700s and early 1800s.

But the brown rats of Europe became the true globe-trotters. As Western European countries colonized other parts of the world, they took the rodents with them.

The brown rats of New York and other Eastern American cities trace their ancestry to those in Western Europe. So do brown rats in South America, Africa, New Zealand, and isolated islands scattered across the Atlantic and Pacific.

Even today, the ports of New York City are visited by rats from around the world.

Nearly 700 NYC restaurant-goers found something gross in their food last year

Yoav Gonen of the New York Post reports restaurant customers have called in a record number of complaints to the city’s 311 hot line for the second year in a row.

mr-creosote-monty-pythonRecords show there were 10,373 complaints to the municipal call center in the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30 — up from 8,653 the year before.

The top complaints were the discovery of rodents, insects or garbage inside an eatery — with 2,832 such calls, up from 2,213.

New York diners also complained of spoiled food (997), concerns about a restaurant’s letter grade (804) — such as no grade being posted — and bare hands coming in touch with their food (775).

An additional 676 grubsters said they found a foreign object — usually a piece of hair or plastic — in their meal, an 18 percent increase.

The surge came even as the city rated 92.7 percent of the city’s 24,000-plus eateries with a grade of “A” in fiscal 2016, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

That was close to the 93 percent that got the top grade in fiscal 2015.

Health Department officials didn’t provide data requested by The Post for the number of violations issued to restaurants last year, making it impossible to know whether the complaints spurred a higher number of summonses.

Apt name: 2 Hell’s Kitchen restaurants shuttered for rats and roaches

DNA Info reports two neighborhood restaurants were temporarily shut down by the New York City Health Department for rats and roaches, according to city records. Public House, an Irish bar and restaurant at 589 Eleventh Ave., and the Vintner Cafe, an Italian joint at 671 Ninth Ave., were forced to close their doors for several days last week, according to records.

On Oct. 23, Health Department inspectors found evidence of a rats at the Vintner Cafe and temporarily barred the restaurant from dishing up its signatures sandwiches and salads. The cafe has been cited three times in the past for mice in the facility, but the rats were a new violation.

Vintner passed a subsequent inspection on Monday and was allowed to reopen with its grade pending, until further inspections prove it can keep its facility clean.

A manager at the cafe who would not give his name said the rats were only in a storage facility and that nearby construction had brought on the recent infestation. They’ve since hired an exterminator to take care of the problem, he said.

“There’s not food there or anything,” the manager said. “It was just that part. The rest was fine.”

At McQuaids Public House, health inspectors found roaches during an Oct. 20 visit, marking the fourth time the vermin were seen in the eatery in two years, according to health department records.

It was allowed to reopen with a pending grade after three subsequent inspections found workers had cleared up the problem.

A worker at McQuaids declined to comment.

A NY rat carries a slice of pizza into the subway

Here’s a video of a very determined rat carrying a slice of pizza down stairs and into our hearts.

RatatouilleThe disturbing and oddly endearing 14-second video is going viral on Facebook and Twitter, being touted by many as “the most New York thing ever.” The YouTube clip was ostensibly shot in New York City on stairs leading down to the subway.

Why is it so popular? Well, it’s Monday. This has to be a metaphor for something.

Obviously, the Internet is having some fun with #pizzarat.

“I have taken the pizza wasted on the subway forgive me it was wasted on the ground forgive me it was so pizza and I’m a rat”


NYC briefly shuts down sushi shop for live roaches

A midtown sushi restaurant that had been wracking up health violations for months when inspectors found evidence of rats, roaches and mice was shuttered for three days last week, records show.

EEL_TH_C_^_THUIQFuji Sushi, located at 238 W. 56th St., was forced to close by the Health Department on Sept. 8 when inspectors found live roaches in the restaurant.