Chicago Officials Use Twitter to Tracks Foodborne Illness

It seems like every day there is a new recall issued for some type of food contamination – salmonella, E.coli, listeria or other risks of public health. Although the FDA and USDA are trying to ramp up their inspection and enforcement practices, change is simply not coming fast enough to protect those most vulnerable. For their part, health officials here in Chicago are looking to Twitter to help track cases of food poisoning.

Food contamination lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm have seen too many cases of serious ailment and even death from dangerous and recalled food. Unfortunately, a major hurdle in overhauling the food safety system is how rarely consumers report illnesses to federal or state health departments, making it difficult to track and locate outbreaks. While people may not generally take the time to officially report their sicknesses, they do quite often take their grievances to Twitter.

Foodborne Chi

This is not lost on Chicago health officials, who are using the social media platform to reach out to those users, asking them where they believe the food poisoning came from. More often than not, their information leads to charges against restaurants selling unsafe food. The handle these officials are working under is @foodbornechi.

To help establish a more efficient method of shifting though Tweets, the Chicago Department of Public Health hired the technological collaborative group Smart Chicago. Together, they developed an app that looks through tweets from Chicagoans or linked to the city that may indicate or reference a foodborne illness. The app is also called Foodborne Chicago, and it responds to Tweeters with a link to an online form for reporting further details. Officials want every state to use this technology, so they have made the app’s codes available to the public, found here.

The program, launched in March 2013, has already led to more than 130 unannounced health inspections, resulting in critical violations and, in some cases, restaurant closures. Local consumers are excited that the government is taking initiative, actually listening to their complaints and taking them seriously. Anyone who has been to a DMV in Chicago knows that this is not always the case.

Chicago is not alone in using new technologies to track and detect outbreaks; health officials in New York City have taken to monitoring popular online review websites to see if anyone notes cases of illness, and inspect restaurants with complaints against them. Building on this, many officials are attempting to integrate inspection reports into reviewing websites like Yelp, so potential customers have more access to information.

Far-Reaching Potential

These efforts could potentially help detect cases of massive food problems, such as the recent scandal involving a California slaughterhouse that deceived federal inspectors and sold horribly sick cattle. According to the lawsuit, the Rancho Feeding Corp.’s co-owners knowingly distributed cattle with eye cancer and sold beef that had been condemned by the USDA. It is as horrifying and disgusting as it sounds, and the co-owners have been indicted on federal charges of conspiring to distribute misbranded, adulterated, uninspected meat. They are also charged with mail fraud, and face up to 20 years in prison in addition to hundreds of thousands in fines.

This scandal broke in January 2014, launching a massive recall of Rancho’s beef (around ten million pounds) from thousands of major stores and brands, including Kroger, Walmart, and Nestle products. The lawsuit alleges that the Rancho co-owners chose to purchase cattle priced much below average because they exhibited symptoms of eye cancer. They decapitated the animals and led inspectors to cattle heads that did not have signs of cancer to deceive them. Rancho also processed cattle that had been condemned by federal inspectors by carving out the “Condemned” stamps from the animals’ skin.

This scandal centered on one slaughterhouse, however, there are systemic problems in the livestock industry as a whole. The USDA recently announced controversial changes to its poultry inspection program and set new requirements with the goal of reducing salmonella and compylabacter outbreaks from poultry. The program is called the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), and officials estimate that it will prevent 5,000 foodborne illnesses every year.

NPIS is controversial because many consumer groups actually view it as reduction to the USDA’s current level of inspection. Indeed, the plan is to shift inspection duties from federal officials to industry employees. The amount of time taken to inspect chickens (140 birds per minute) will stay the same, however the speed for turkey production lines will speed up, from 51 to 55 turkeys per minute. What’s more, processing plants will not be required to implement this new NPIS program – they will have a choice to stick with one of the four current inspection programs. More information on this NPIS system and its details can be found here.

The present poultry inspection systems were established in the mid-1950s, yet foodborne illnesses and contamination outbreaks have not decreased. In fact, they have been steadily increasing in severity and scope. More than 630 people were sickened by the Foster Farms drug-resistant salmonella outbreak last year alone, causing nearly 40% of those affected to be hospitalized from eating the tainted chicken.

Foodborne illness lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm have decades of experience handling cases of severe injury and death from recalled food. If you have any questions regarding this issue, contact our firm immediately for a free, confidential, no-obligation legal consultation.

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