Laptev, an electronics analyst, was making his way through the
Charlotte, N.C., airport this month when he stopped at Starbucks for a
light dinner — a ham-and-cheese sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate.
He ate, drank, boarded his flight and got home. And that’s when the
Laptev spent much of that night hunched over the toilet with a
violently upset stomach. Suspecting his Starbucks meal as the source
of his ills, he sent a complaint through the company’s website, but
got only an automated form email back. So he did the next best thing:
he logged on to his computer and went toIWasPoisoned.com,
a website that allows users to post reports of food poisoning, and
submitted his saga.
wanted to let people know to stop eating at Starbucks,” he told me.
is the era of internet-assisted consumer revenge, and as scorned
customers in industries from dentistry to dog-walking have used
digital platforms to broadcast their displeasure, the balance of power
has tipped considerably in the buyer’s favor.
is especially true of IWasPoisoned, which has collected about 89,000
reports since it opened in 2009. Consumers use the site to decide
which restaurants to avoid, and public health departments and food
industry groups routinely monitor its submissions, hoping to identify
outbreaks before they spread. The site has even begun to tilt stocks,
as traders on Wall Street see the value of knowing which national
restaurant chain might soon have a food-safety crisis on its hands.
everyone is happy about the added transparency. Restaurant executives
have criticized IWasPoisoned for allowing anonymous and unverified
submissions, which they say leads to false reports and irresponsible
fear-mongering. Some public health officials have objected on the
grounds that food poisoning victims can’t be trusted to correctly
identify what made them sick.
not helping food safety,” said Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food
safety at Cornell University. “If you want to trace food-borne
illness, it needs to be done by public health departments, and it
needs to include food history.”
your Uber driver or Airbnb host is one thing. But when it comes to
matters of public health, is there such a thing as giving too much
power to the people?
Quade, IWasPoisoned’s founder, told me that he started the site in
2009, after, he said, he got food poisoning from a B.L.T. wrap he
bought at a Manhattan deli. At the time, Mr. Quade, now 46, was
working as an interest rates trader at Morgan Stanley. He figured that
other people might want a place to report food-borne illnesses quickly
and anonymously, without the ordeal of filing a complaint with the
local health department.
first, the submissions trickled in, mostly from diners who had meals
at small local restaurants. But national chains like McDonald’s,
Subway and Starbucks popped up as well. Dunkin’ Brands, the parent
company of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, saw its stock fall 2.4
percent last July, after traders on Wall Street circulated reports of
a food-poisoning incident at one of the chain’s stores, according to
the financial news siteBenzinga.
(The stock quickly recovered, and no widespread food-safety problem
was ever confirmed.) Other national chains have also started their own
investigations after reports appeared on the site, according to Mr.
restaurant chain has felt the IWasPoisoned effect more than Chipotle.
In 2015, users of the site began posting reports of food poisoning
from a Chipotle location in Simi Valley, Calif. Eventually, it became
clear that they were part of a larger norovirus outbreak, one of many
food safety issues that wouldhaunt
Chipotlefor the next couple of years, cutting
its stock price in half and eventually forcing the resignation of its
could tell that Chipotle was a problem brand,” Mr. Quade said. “The
rate of reporting was averaging nine or 10 times higher than other
brands. It was a really powerful leading indicator.”
the 2015 Chipotle incident drew attention to the site, Mr. Quade
realized that IWasPoisoned could become a real business. He quit his
job at Morgan Stanley, and began to work on the site full time. He now
has three employees, a handful of remote contractors and a makeshift
office at a co-working space in Manhattan. The company makes less than
$20,000 per month in revenue, but Mr. Quade expects that to grow.
Soon, he plans to release a mobile app, which will alert a user when
walking near a restaurant with an active food poisoning complaint.
it has matured, IWasPoisoned has developed an unusual business model
that reflects Mr. Quade’s Wall Street roots. Power users — like, say,
a hedge fund that can profit from knowing about an E. coli outbreak at
a major restaurant chain ahead of the rest of the market — pay up to
$5,000 a month for real-time alerts whenever a new report is posted to
the site. (Free alerts are also available, but they come only once a
day.) Only a handful of clients pay for the premium service, but more
have expressed interest in signing up, Mr. Quade said.
investment community is more attuned to food safety than ever before,”
officials and restaurant executives are also using the site to spot
early signs of trouble. According to Mr. Quade, public health agencies
in 46 states and representatives from more than half of the top 50
restaurant chains in America subscribe to the site’s daily email
alerts. More than 25,000 consumers subscribe to the emails as well.
average, the site now receives 150 complaints a day, and every new
report is manually reviewed by a staff member before posting to make
sure it is at least plausible. The site weeds out obvious hoaxes and
joke submissions, and uses technology like IP tracking to help stop
users from submitting multiple reviews of the same restaurant.
every report, our promise is to make sure it’s a real person who
believes they have food poisoning,” Mr. Quade said.
of those words — “believes” — is perhaps the food industry’s biggest
problem with IWasPoisoned. Food safety experts told me that food
poisoning victims are prone to what epidemiologists call “recall
bias.” A person who gets a violent stomach bug will naturally
attribute it to the last thing they ate, especially if it came from a
restaurant with a history of food-safety issues. But often, given the
slow-developing nature of many food-borne illnesses, the culprit is
something they ate days ago, or something entirely unrelated.
web page like this doesn’t ask what disease you got, or the timing of
it,” Professor Wiedmann of Cornell said. “All of that gets lost.”
Quade conceded that point, saying, “We don’t go out and conduct
medical tests” on submissions, and that users’ accounts might not
always be reliable. The site allows restaurants to appeal a report, he
said, if it has evidence that a customer is lying or mistaken, and
that it pulls reports off its website after 30 days to limit their
he said that the site’s reports were still valuable as data points to
consider in context. And, he added, users want a place to complain.