Anatomy of a Foodborne Illness Complaint, Part 1: Planning


Every restaurant should have a plan for handling complaints. Most of these plans lay out what the manager needs to do in the name of customer service. This usually consists of having a game plan for retaining the complainant as a customer. The end result might be comping a meal, sending out coupons, or inviting the customer back to prove that you can give them a good experience in your establishment. Most establishments train their employees on this all the time.

Foodborne illness complaints are completely different. There still is the element of customer service, but dealing with an angry sick person has its own set of rules. A simple coupon for a free dessert probably won’t cut it. So what do you need to include in your foodborne illness complaint plan?

These 3 components are extremely important:

  • Phone call complaint form
  • Trained and experienced staff on foodborne illness
  • Documentation

Phone Call Complaint Form

A phone call worksheet is very important. This makes it easy for the manager to ask all the necessary questions during the initial phone call to get as much information as possible. After acquiring the usual contact information, ask these important questions:

  1. When and what did they eat?
  2. How many people were in the party, who became ill, and which ones live together?
  3. How long after they ate did they first start feeling symptoms?
  4. What were the symptoms?
  5. How long did the symptoms last?
  6. Did they go to the doctor? If so, what did the doctor say? Did the doctor run any tests?
  7. What have they eaten in the last 72 hours? (This is the most difficult information to get, but it’s very important.)

This information is extremely important in order to determine the validity of the complaint. An incubation period needs to be established, and by combining this with symptoms, we can begin to direct a foodborne illness investigation. The 72-hour meal history is crucial because the illness could have come from other food rather than food from your restaurant. Most of the time, the person will see through your attempt to find another cause and not provide this information. The questions should still be asked.

When communicating with the complainant, it’s crucial that empathy and patience are shown since this person is not feeling well and is quite angry. Even if you don’t think your establishment is the cause, try to be understanding and let him or her talk. The more the person talks, the less angry he or she will likely become, therefore making it easier to get the proper information you are asking for.

This initial phone call is strictly for acquiring the information on the form and allowing the complainant to make a case. No decisions or judgments should be given. Once this has been accomplished, let the person know what happens next and what you are going to do about it. It’s best to communicate to the person that his or her complaint is taken very seriously and someone will be in contact very soon.

Trained and Experienced Staff on Foodborne Illness

Each organization should have someone responsible for handling difficult complaints. They should be trained and experienced in dealing with foodborne illness. If you don’t have someone experienced in foodborne illness, send someone to a training. The FDA provides training for the industry in many areas of food safety.

When a foodborne illness complaint occurs, your employee should use the training to be able to determine if there is a problem in your restaurant that could lead to illness, and then act on it. The worst-case scenario should be imagined. When I gather information for a foodborne illness investigation, I take the position that the complainant did become ill from the restaurant, and I look for how this could have happened.

The employee you choose to handle foodborne illness complaints needs to know everything about how the food is cooked and handled in your restaurant. This person needs to have the ability to conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation. Once this has been done, an appropriate response can be given to the complainant.


Having plans and procedures for prepping and cooking food is great, but can you prove it? This can be accomplished by keeping detailed records for unit temperatures and cooling logs, retaining shellfish tags, having tally sheets for showing how many of one product were sold, and maintaining a book for tracking sick employees. These records should be used every day. These will help your case when trying to prove there isn’t a problem in the facility.

All of these components should be part of the planning process for handling foodborne illness complaints. Doing the work ahead of time and training your staff on these components will make any foodborne illness complaint a lot easier to handle.

If you have any questions on this topic, please contact me at Be sure to check back for our next post—Anatomy of a Foodborne Illness Complaint, Part 2: False Accusations.

Looking for more information on food safety? There’s lots more to learn if you follow me on Twitter at @resprofsp and like Respro on Facebook at

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