Anatomy of a Foodborne Illness Complaint: Introduction


Restaurants deal with complaints every day. Customers complain about customer service, wait times, food quality, prices, and more. What happens when the dreaded phone call comes in about a foodborne illness complaint? This can be the most difficult type of complaint to handle because the average manager doesn’t have adequate knowledge about pathogens involved, incubation periods, symptoms, testing procedures, or appropriate costs associated with such a case. So what is the best procedure for handling an illness complaint?

For the most part, the general public is largely uneducated about this topic as well. People are likely to blame the last place they ate rather than using the time frames from when they ate food and when symptoms first appeared (incubation period). Typically, symptoms don’t begin until 12–36 hours after exposure and can take as long as 21 days to begin. This can cause a big smoke screen when trying to determine where someone ate contaminated food.

When I started to write this piece, I realized it was a much larger subject than I had anticipated. As a result, I’ve decided to break this topic into a series of parts.

  • Part 1: Planning
  • Part 2: False Accusations
  • Part 3: Confirmed Cases
  • Part 4: Outbreak
  • Part 5: Health Department Involvement

Clearly, more education is needed on foodborne illness. Responsible restaurant owners wouldn’t be constantly defending themselves or paying out unnecessary claims, and local public health officials could focus their time on actual cases rather than going on wild goose chases. Properly tracking illnesses will also increase outbreak numbers and give a more accurate scope of a particular outbreak.

Through this series, I hope to give guidance to restaurant managers, owners, and their customers on the facts of foodborne illness. Specific pathogens, incubation periods, common symptoms, the health department’s role, and developing a plan that will give operators a better chance of identifying false complaints will be some of the topics discussed. I’ve handled these complaints both as a regulator and a private consultant and will provide insight from both perspectives. As this subject is discussed, please send me questions or comments to make sure your organization is properly prepared to handle this complex problem.

In the meantime, check out these links that touch on this topic:

Marler Blog: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff—The Reality of Proving a Foodborne Illness Case

CDC: Guide to Confirming a Diagnosis in Foodborne Disease

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