Vomit-onomics: A tale of online reviews, chef’s hats and marauding bacteria.

A CHRONOLOGY:

Thursday night: Special occasion dinner for two at a restaurant. (which boasts a chef’s hat in the Good Food Guide – the Melbourne equivalent of a Michelin star.)

Friday: Peking Duck at a Peking Duck restaurant in the suburbs.

Late Friday night: My partner engages in copious vomiting.

Saturday: She spends the day in bed, speculating about the possible effects of so much Peking Duck.

Saturday night: I discover that I too have a ticket on the vomit comet. I suppose that I also ate an excess of Peking Duck.

Sunday: I spend the day in bed.

Mid-week: Our housemate also falls violently ill. Speculation about the role of the Peking Duck falters and wanes. No decent alternative theories emerge.

Time passes. All recover.

A week later: A missed call from the Victorian Government Department of Health Communicable Diseases Unit. (A frightening voice message if ever there was one). 

The lady on the end of the phone is duty-bound to provide no information and engage in no speculation. She’s a bug detective, not a news service. But the questions she asks tell the story.

“I got your telephone number from the booking sheet at Easy Tiger. Did you eat there on the night of April 17?”

“I did,” I said, having an aha! moment.

She then goes on to ask a range of questions about symptoms. She also reads out the whole menu, in a seeming attempt to isolate the cause. She tells me not to go to work if I work in the food industry.

Now. It’s very nice to know that the Victorian Department of Health is out there fighting the good fight. But the fact they are involved suggests a certain level of seriousness. I wouldn’t, for example, report a quick spew to the government. But hospital emergency departments are obliged to

The fact that we passed the bug on suggests it was not your standard food poisoning, but either norovirus or Salmonella, and the fact the government cares enough to investigate may, perhaps, imply it is Salmonella, which is potentially fatal. 

The end point of this, and the part where economics comes in, is what we did next. 

The Victorian Government has not published anything about any outbreak. Of course the restaurant may be innocent.

But Google suggests we are not alone in harbouring suspicions:

Image

 

Clicking on that link leads here:

Image

 

Kudos to you if you noticed they don’t match. It seems to be policy to remove accusations of food poisoning from review websites, due to legal issues. 

We considered the possible ramifications for the restaurant of writing a review linking them to food poisoning.  On the one hand, there remains a chance they are not guilty.

On the other hand, making such a review could do a lot of good. If it prevents somebody with a compromised immune system from eating infected food, it could save their life. 

But the long-run effect is also important. If restaurants know they can’t poison their diners without facing the consequences, their food safety standards will improve.  (It could be the fault of their supplier, but shaming the restaurant will have an effect back up the supply chain.)

So we left a story on Urbanspoon (a restaurant review website) that delivered the facts, as I did above. A chronology of eating, spewing and taking calls from the Communicable Diseases Unit. Nothing definitive, nothing defamatory. 

That has since been removed from the restaurant’s Urbanspoon page (while remaining visible via the users page, which nobody would visit).

Meanwhile, crap like this remains:

“My friend ordered the coconut braised wagyu beef in a soupy broth, which the waitress said, came with a “complimentary” serve of rice. And she never got to taste the broth/gravy, because the waitress took her plate away before she could touch it! My friend had finished removing the beef and putting it onto her plate with some rice. She was going to take a spoonful of broth/gravy, but suddenly a waitress appeared, and without asking if she was finished, the waitress whisked the broth-full plate away!”

If you can’t communicate assertively with your waiter, you get to rant and rave. But if something genuinely serious happens, you can’t write about it.

The quality of food is what marketers call an unobservable product characteristic. You can’t know everything about it before you buy. Firms use signals to try to tell you about these unobservable characteristics. For example, they may set prices high (check), or make very public the awards they have won (check). 

But with food, quality has an important dimension. Will it make you sick? This dimension is one which the restaurant won’t signal, and consumers are currently blocked from signalling in the most obvious place.

This blog post is therefore designed to stand in place of all those deleted reviews. I do not know for sure what made us sick, but I do know for sure that I’d like to hear about people’s reasonable suspicions before I make my next booking. 

Published by

thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

3 thoughts on “Vomit-onomics: A tale of online reviews, chef’s hats and marauding bacteria.”

  1. Sorry to hear you were unwell!

    My wife used to work in this area for state governments. I understand they investigate all outbreaks whether it’s one person on the vomit comet (PS. Added to my spew vernacular!) or many (as it appears here). Often the outcome is unrelated to a particular restaurant or food vendor and can be traced back to gastro picked up at home or work. It’s when there is a pattern of complaints that the department starts to step in – the restaurant in question will be physically inspected for hygiene/contaminants, etc and potentially prosecuted if it has breached the law.

    I guess the problem with these review sites is that they are open to abuse by vindictive customers/competitors so allowing posts of the nature you attempted also has potentially misleading consequences for prospective diners. It might be a different matter if posters were somehow required to prove that they dined/got sick, but such a scheme seems impossible to administer so what we are left with is the unfortunately limited second best alternative.

    Like

    1. BM, Interesting to hear that home / work can often be the source. I’m certainly interested to see if this ever gets publicised more widely.

      While you are not wrong about the possibility of abusing online review systems, it doesn’t make sense to single out food poisoning as the one category of complaint you can’t make online.
      If I want to tear down a restaurant I don’t like, I can just as easily make complaints about food being cold or tasting bad, or service being rude. A rash of online reviews could actually be a very useful clue for epidemic detectives like your wife!

      Like

  2. Epilogue: As of 6 May, I heard the State Gvt had investigated 13 linked cases (possibly viral, rather than salmonella), and via facebook, I discovered 6 more people that say they got sick after eating at Easy Tiger.

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s