Monday, November 17, 2008

Googling food safety

Plug “E. coli” into Google’s news search feature and you’ll pull up the latest on an outbreak in Canada, where officials are trying to verify that contaminated lettuce is what sickened more than 50 people. You’ll also be getting a test drive of what could become a powerful but controversial new tool in promoting food safety: The Google search itself.

The New York Times reported last week that a philanthropic arm of the internet powerhouse is experimenting with a new service designed to help U.S. health officials detect a flu outbreak at least a week before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention typically spots a cluster. The premise of the program is that sufferers or their families will search for symptoms of the illness via Google in hopes of determining what ails them. The search engine notes the spike in queries and pinpoints where they’re arising, thereby flagging an outbreak. See it for yourself at

Right now, the only incarnation of the service is Google Flu Trends. But the same concept would presumably work with such food-related illnesses as norovirus or E. coli. “From a technological perspective, it is the beginning,” Google CEO Eric E. Schmidt told the Times.

The capability would seem like a no-brainer of a breakthrough. But it’s already stirred up controversy as well as hopes. The Times’ popular technology blog Bits has aired the fears of some groups that the detection function could lead to breaches of privacy. Google has issued assurances that disease-related search results would be aggregated rather than recorded by searcher, but public advocates are worried the capability could be misused to identity persons coming down with a particular ailment.

Potential risks aside, what’s the pay-off for such a system? In tests, Google Flu Trends spotted an East Coast flu outbreak a full 14 days before the incidences were collated by the CDC. That news came to light as health authorities in Canada were looking at reports of diarrhea and other potential signs of E. coli poisoning from a school in North Bay, the town where a Harvey’s family restaurant was implicated as the source of the lettuce-related outbreak.

Fortunately, it looks as if the school children were afflicted with the flu, not ailments caused by the potentially deadly bacteria. But if the Google system had been in place there (right now it’s only used domestically), and the agent was indeed E. coli 0157:H7, health officials might’ve gotten a jump that could’ve saved lives.

With a benefit that important, it seems like a service worth adopting, especially if reasonable privacy safeguards are put in place.

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