(WWBT) - Chipotle executives say a sick employee is what led to 135 customers contracting norovirus from eating at their Sterling restaurant last week.
That outbreak was caught quickly. But food borne illness in restaurants happens more often than you might think because it's rarely reported.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate 48 million people suffer from food borne illness each year from all sources, restaurants, stores, and home cooked food, but only a few thousand cases are reported and confirmed.
A website called Iwaspoisoned.com is working to change that. It says it aims to alert health departments, restaurants and consumers about food borne illness to prevent more people from getting sick.
In fact, founder Patrick Quade says the site was the first to detect the original norovirus outbreak at Chipotle restaurants two years ago.
Richmond resident Linda Morris knows the pain of food borne illness all too well. She says she was sick for three days last week after ordering take-out from a local restaurant.
"My stomach was hurting so badly that I thought I was going to die," Morris said.
She reported it to the Health Department, which is now investigating. NBC12 isn't naming the restaurant where Morris ordered her food because the source of her illness has not yet been confirmed.
But most people don't bother or don't know to notify the Health Department or the restaurant they suspect is the source.
That's why Quade started Iwaspoisoned.com.
"It made sense to me. If there was a place people could report they got sick, and for instance, you could see 50 people also got sick after eating there, that would be useful information," said Quade.
Quade says the site alerts health departments, and partners with restaurants that want to be notified, too. Consumers can look up reports on the site, and sign up to receive email alerts about illness reports. We asked Quade how they make sure reports aren't incorrect, or even fake.
"On a technical back-end review, it looks at a whole bunch of factors, including the time stamps, the IP address, the location, to get a sense of whether this is actually authentic," he said. "Then we read the report and the goal is to weed out inauthentic or malicious or off-topic reports."
Quade says many state and local health departments have signed up for their alerts, including the Virginia Department of Health.
"I think it's useful to have a site like that going on," said Allen Knapp, director of the Office of Environmental Health Services for the Virginia Department of Health. "I think of it as sort of the value of crowdsourcing as a sentinel of problems out there."
But Knapp urges consumers to report cases directly to the Health Department through its own site, My Meal Detective, so officials can begin investigating right away.
"We collect a little more information. Particularly we collect some more specific communication about times, dates, and names of people," said Knapp.
The sooner investigators can pinpoint the source of food poisoning, Knapp says, the sooner they can stop the spread.
That's why Morris says she called the Health Department right away.
"I wouldn't wish anyone to go through what I went through," said Morris.
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