When you get food poisoning, it can be hard to tell whether you picked up something at a restaurant or got it somewhere else.
It can become clearer when numerous reports start coming back from the same establishment. That’s what prompted the 24-hour shutdown of Tacoma’s Melting Pot restaurant in December.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department took the action after reports started showing up on a website dedicated to crowdsourcing food poisoning complaints.
Banker Patrick Quade founded IWasPoisoned.com after he got sick from a diner in New York City about 10 years ago.
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“It was absolutely brutal,” he recalled. “It laid me out on the floor. It was crushing.”
When he later called the diner to report the incident, the person hung up on him.
“I thought, wow, there should be a way to report it,” Quade said.
He began spending less time on banking and more time on his website.
“It was a bigger problem than I knew at the time,” Quade said.
Each year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases, which can be caused by several pathogens.
How it works
IWasPoisoned.com offers diners a way to report illnesses and provides them with bulletins on restaurants in certain areas.
The site got a boost of publicity in 2015 when reports of a food-borne illness at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Simi Valley, California, first surfaced on its site.
It was the start of a norovirus outbreak that led the company to re-examine its food safety programs across its 2,000-restaurant chain.
IWasPoisoned.com received 70 reports from unwell customers of the Simi Valley location.
A form on the site’s homepage has check-off boxes for symptoms and the name of the suspected source.
Many random reports fill the site (reports cover only the past 30 days) but when a pattern emerges, as it did with the Melting Pot, IWasPoisoned.com contacts the local health department and occasionally local media.
After the site and a caller notified the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department of possible food poisoning, the agency shut the restaurant down Dec. 30 for a day. The agency had not taken that step for a outbreak of illness since May, when it shut down the El Toro restaurant in Puyallup.
The Melting Pot incident was the first time IWasPoisoned.com and the county health department interacted.
“I’m open to information on sick people from anywhere,” said Christina Sherman, an environmental health specialist with the health department’s food safety program. “Food-borne illness is very underreported.”
Although illness reports are “probably just the tip of the iceberg,” she said she doesn’t take them at face value.
“I need to interview each one of them,” Sherman said.
She uses her education and experience to determine the accuracy of each report and how it fits into the larger pattern of an outbreak.
Eventually, 15 Melting Pot diners posted on IWasPoisoned.com, and many called the health department.
During the shutdown, the restaurant was given an intensive cleaning overnight in accordance to health department specifications and re-evaluated its food safety protocols.
The source of the illness was not determined. Steve Metcalf, a spokesman for the health department, said norovirus was suspected but not confirmed.
A spokeswoman for the Melting Pot declined to comment for this story.
Illness reports are not automatically posted to the IWasPoisoned.com.
“We moderate every single report,” Quade said. “Because the topic is narrow enough, we can actually do it.”
Quade recognizes that people might want to sabotage a restaurant by defaming it with fake reports.
“Our commitment to the public is that everything that goes up on the site is a real person who believes they have food poisoning,” he said.
Reviewers examine IP addresses and use other methods to detect fraud, he said.
Quade also offers a subscription companion to IWasPoisoned.com. DineSafe.org provides alerts to restaurants that subscribe, alerting them when someone reports a food poisoning complaint.
But if a subscribing restaurant gets an illness report, the information’s posting is not delayed, Quade said.
“We’re not compromising the data,” he said. “It’s not Yelp. People can smell that. That would end badly.”
Not everyone’s a fan
Not all in the restaurant business are thrilled with IWasPoisoned.com.
The Washington Hospitality Association, a restaurant advocacy group, says food poisoning claims should be reported to local health departments first.
“Reporting sickness on a website might seem like a simple solution, but it doesn’t impact food safety in any way,” association spokeswoman Stephanie McManus said.
Health departments report problems to the public online after a thorough inspection, she said.
“Without the checks and balances built into health department investigations, unsubstantiated claims can harm people and businesses,” McManus said.
Regardless of whether they use IWasPoisoned.com, consumers can call their local health department to report illnesses. Many of the agencies offer food inspection reports on their websites, enabling diners to research establishments before eating out.
The Melting Pot, for example, had eight violations in 2016 before its temporary closure.
They included the restaurant violating standards that “Food contact surfaces used for raw meat (be) thoroughly cleaned and sanitized” on Nov. 18 and “Proper washing (of) fruits and vegetables” on July 8.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
▪ Between 25,000 and 35,000 unique users per month.
▪ 20,500 reports posted in 2016 (up 37 percent from 2015).
▪ Has public health subscribers in 40 states.
▪ 9,000 consumers subscribe to free “Alerts for your City” service.