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How Should I Handle a Restaurant Food Poisoning Accusation?

You started your business filled with excitement about serving amazing food to your customers and building a popular restaurant. You
never imagined that your restaurant could actually make someone sick. There aren’t many things that will cause PANIC for a restaurant owner the way a food poisoning accusation can.

Just one food poisoning accusation can cost your restaurant its reputation and may even jeopardize your entire business. The way owners handle an accusation is vital for the future of your business and the safety of your customers.


What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning, also called food-borne illness, is a term for sickness that occurs as the result of ingesting contaminated food or drinks. Researchers have identified more than 250 food-borne diseases.

Common symptoms of food-borne illness are nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Symptoms can sometimes be severe and some

food-borne illnesses can even be life-threatening. Although anyone can food poisoning, some people are more likely to develop the illness including:

  • Pregnant women
  • Young children
  • Older adults
  • People with immune systems weakened from medical conditions.
Most people suffering from a food-borne illness get better without medical treatment, but it is recommended that people with severe symptoms or those in the at-risk group above see a doctor.
According to the CDC, the top five most common germs causing food poisoning illness in the US are:
  • Norovirus
  • Salmonella
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Campylobacter
  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)

Food poisoning occurs when a person eats food that has been contaminated by a pathogen. These pathogens can be spread by contaminated surfaces or between people. The pathogens can be bacterial (such as salmonella or E.coli) or viral (such as hepatitis A) and are all dangerous.

How does food poisoning occur?

There are many ways that food poisoning can occur. The most common are:

  • Food hasn’t been prepared correctly
  • Food hasn’t been properly stored
  • Food has been used after its use-by date
  • Cross contamination has occurred
  • Food has been handled by someone who is sick
  • Food has been handled by someone with poor hand hygiene

Food poisoning can almost always be avoided with proper food safety procedures. Hand hygiene plays a major role in preventing the spread of pathogens. Establishing a work culture that puts an emphasis on hygiene is a must. Restaurant employees should have the means to thoroughly and regularly wash their hands and restaurant managers and owners should enforce hand washing consistently.

I’ve received a food poisoning accusation- now what?

Ongoing food safety struggles experienced by restaurants like Chipotle and Jack in the Box are a reminder that food poisoning accusations have dire consequences for restaurants. Chipotle’s shares recently sank more than 7 points following the food poisoning outbreak in Ohio. The future of Chipotle is now in the hands of the new CEO and his ongoing response to the recent incident.

How restaurant owner’s handle a food poisoning accusation matters. Here are the steps that restaurant owners can take to ensure that if the worst does happen, you are prepared and have a plan:

1. Prepare

Even if your restaurant has a perfect food safety track record, it is never wise to get too comfortable. Having a food safety plan in place in the event of a food poisoning accusation is critical. The plan should clearly outline the exact steps to take in the event that a customer reports an illness that may originate from your restaurant. Your plan should include details such as how to respond to the customer and how to contact the authorities.

Your food safety response plan should be written down and part of an employee handbook so that every employee is familiar with what to do. If a new employee takes the call with a sick customer, their response could mean the difference between effectively managing the situation or escalating it. Consider incorporating your restaurant’s food poisoning plan as part of your employee training

2. Customer Response

Handling a call where a customer is alleging that your restaurant caused them to become ill is never easy. It is not the time to judge or speculate. It is the time to show compassion without assuming blame. Your response to the call should be to gather information, such as their contact information and the menu items they ate. Here are some additional questions to ask:

  • Menu items they ate and what time
  • Symptoms they are experiencing and when they started
  • Did anyone else from their party eat the same food
  • Is anyone else from their party experiencing similar symptoms
  • Have seen a doctor for diagnosis

Assure the customer that the restaurant will review its food safety logs and records. Although your reaction may be to apologize, it is important not to refrain from admitting guilt until all of the facts are gathered. Apologizing prematurely leaves your restaurant open to legal action that could mean the end of your business.

3. Investigate

Identifying the source of food poisoning can be very difficult. There is always a good chance that your customer became ill from something else. However, it is important to take every accusation seriously and snap into immediate action. If a customer accuses your restaurant of causing their food poisoning, begin gathering the relevant information.

Whether your restaurant uses a digital food safety platform, like FreshCheq, or paper logs, it is important to begin compiling necessary reports relating to the time frame and food items mentioned by the customer. Speak to the employees who prepared the food, cooked the food, and served the food. Review all of the food safety logs relating to the complain including:

  • Cooler temperature logs
  • Cooling / reheat temperature logs
  • Line checks
  • Food label dates
  • Employee sick logs

It is also a good idea to reach out to food suppliers to let them know about the accusation and request information about any other complaints they may have received. Food contamination can occur at any time from the farm to the plate.

4. Mitigate Additional Risk

Pathogens can easily spread and are not confined to food. If your restaurant receives a food poisoning accusation, it is important to ensure that all surfaces, utensils, and equipment in your kitchen and prep areas are safe to use. To reduce the risk of pathogens breeding in your kitchen spaces, routine cleanliness should be a priority at all times, especially now. Food poisoning can also occur as a result of employee sickness. Following a food poisoning accusation, interviewing all employees to determine if anyone is sick can help mitigate any further risk. If anyone on your staff is unwell, they should not be at work – no matter how busy you are, or how much they need that shift. The health and safety of your customers is at stake and it’s just not worth the risk.

It is difficult to distinguish between an illness brought on by contaminated food and an illness that has similar symptoms, such as gastroenteritis. Additionally, food allergies also display symptoms that resemble food poisoning at times. Whether your restaurant is responsible or not may take time to determine. In the meantime, contact local health authorities to take a proactive approach. In some regions, reporting to local health authorities is mandatory, so make sure you are familiar with the food safety laws and procedures in your county or state. If the food contamination began before it reached your restaurant, it has the potential to cause widespread illness. You have a responsibility, as a restaurant owner, to help trace and contain the contamination by contacting health authorities.

Hopefully, the food poisoning was not the result of poor food safety practices in your restaurant. But, if it was, there is room to grow and improve. New technologies allow restaurant owners to put digital systems in place to promote regular food safety tasks and accountability. Digital, one click reporting makes food safety monitoring simple, whether you own one or multiple restaurants. Research has substantiated that an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure when it comes to food safety.

Learn more about how you can maintain food safety in your store here. 

Everyone in the restaurant industry is dealing with high employee turnover rates.

Everyone in the restaurant industry is dealing with high employee turnover rates. Some may be facing this problem more than others
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