Dirty Dining: Website publishing complaints about restaurants in real time

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - A website is hoping to give consumers more power when it comes to choosing where to dine. With a few clicks, the online tool allows users to see if people are reporting getting sick after eating at central Indiana restaurants. The founder of the site says they publish the reports in real time.

State law requires health departments to wait ten days before releasing the results of a restaurant inspection. Health officials say contacting them directly is the best way to file complaints about dining experiences that lead to illness.

Every time the Marion County Health Department receives such a complaint, inspectors head out to look into it.

"We just think anytime anybody is sick, because it’s so under-reported, that we want to investigate," said Janelle Kaufman, administrator for department of food and consumer safety.

But, the findings of the investigations are not shared with the public immediately - unless there is a public health emergency.

"It's not to keep people from it,"  Kaufman said. "We want to make sure information is right, that they’re correcting it.  The ten days is just based on state law."

Now, there is a different way for Hoosiers to learn about restaurant complaints - sooner.

"It's consumers getting involved telling their story," said Patrick Quade, founder of Iwaspoisoned.com.

Quade said users are sharing their experiences at restaurants and any symptoms they faced afterward.

"We read it and review content of every single report to make sure the content is authentic and on topic and not malicious," Quade said.

The website staff look at time stamps, IP address, location and frequency to make sure the posts are coming from real people. But, there is no way to verify the claims. So, readers have to take that at face value.

"We think that’s the way the world is working now," Quade said. "People are interested in transparency. They’re interested in information right away."

So far this year, there have been 287 complaints submitted from Indiana. The FDA reports 1 in 6 Americans get sick each year from the food they eat. Quade said sharing information about when and where that happens is key.

"When people step up, they’re helping friend, family,  other consumers, health departments and restaurants," Quade said.

The Marion County Health Department is one of the many public agencies that monitor the website.

"If there’s something that we can investigate, we will," Kaufman said.

But, Kaufman cautions that use-submitted sites are not the best way to share this kind of information.

"Unless it gets to us directly with all the details we need, it’s not very useful.," Kaufman said. "We don’t have a contact person in case we need to get ahold of them."

Qaude said Iwaspoisoned.com is simply another resource for the public.

"We think we can work alongside [health departments]," Quade said. " We don’t discourage people from going directly to county health officials. We’re bridging a gap for people who need help with that."

Kaufman said the Marion County Health Department is working on updating its restaurant inspection website in order to make it more user friendly. They hope to launch the improved site in 2018.

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