Heston, 'Food Poisoning' and a Plague of Online Trolls

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Heston, 'Food Poisoning' and a Plague of Online Trolls


Byline: SARAH BRIDGE

IT is every cook's worst nightmare. Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has just been accused of giving diners food poisoning.

In a devastating review on the Trip Advisor website of his latest restaurant venture, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, set in the Mandarin Oriental in London's upmarket Knightsbridge, 'Leila F' writes: 'I went to the restaurant back in May with a group of five for lunch. The food was lush and the service was great...the only drawback was a bout of food poisoning that followed.

'Both my friend and I suffered from it (we shared the duck, which seemed to be the culprit, and she was three months pregnant at the time). The restaurant have been reluctant to accept responsibility, despite medical records and our word that neither of us ate anything prior to lunch (we were saving ourselves for the meal!).' 'Leila' adds she is now suing the restaurant over its poor food hygiene, which if true would be another blow to Heston, whose Michelin-starred Fat Duck at Bray was hit in 2009 with an outbreak of the norovirus bug that saw 240 fall ill.

However, rather than being a genuine case, it seems that Heston may be the latest victim of a growing trend in which people put fake reviews online to damage a business or person or to provoke a reaction.

The moment it heard of the allegation, Dinner swung into action, tracking down the diner, checking what she ate, if anyone else was taken ill the night in question, and what the medical diagnosis was.

Insiders say there haven't been any reports of food poisoning at the restaurant since it opened, and the restaurant says that it has not received any legal communication from anyone about this matter.

It is now understood to be consulting its own lawyers about the comments and a spokesman told Financial Mail that 'any official complaint or allegation made direct to us would always be taken extremely seriously'.

Chris Emmins of KwikChex, which investigates online reviews, says this is a growing problem for the hospitality industry.

'Food poisoning is such a serious allegation to accuse a restaurant of and it can really affect its business,' he said.

'We have investigated hundreds of such allegations and haven't found one to be true yet. But if you are searching for a place to eat and see half a dozen places that have good feedback, but one has a recent allegation of food poisoning, would you choose that one? 'If the allegation is visible for some time, then the damage will obviously be far greater - that's what tends to happen to smaller businesses.' Owners of pubs, restaurants, hotels and bars are all too familiar with TripAdvisor, which is loved and loathed in equal measures.

TripAdvisor, which claims to have 75 million online reviews, allows people to post anonymously and without even proving they have been to the place in question. Getting a high or low rating can make or break a business.

But Emmins believe there are as many as ten million fake reviews on the site by 'trolls' - someone who posts a deliberately provocative message with the intention of causing maximum disruption - who are either disgruntled former employees or rival businesses.

Emmins said: 'It's war out there. Getting a top rating is crucial and yet one bad one-star review can hit the ratings so hard that it takes 20 fivestar reviews to get the rating back. 'So establishments spend huge amounts of time writing great reviews about themselves and trashing the opposition.' For Richard Gollins, enough is enough. Gollins, who owns the Baile-na-Cille B&B on the island of Lewis, is taking TripAdvisor to court, claiming that false and negative reviews on the website have driven away potential customers.

'I believe TripAdvisor is in dereliction of duty in failing to have proper supervision of what goes on its website,' he said. 'It takes a second to put a bad review up about a place you've never been to and yet TripAdvisor does nothing if you complain. …

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