Anatomy of a Foodborne Illness Complaint, Part 2: False Accusations


How do you spot a false foodborne illness complaint? Oftentimes, this can be very difficult to see. There are generally two main types of false complaints—one from someone who is really ill but didn’t get sick from your restaurant and one that comes from a dishonest customer who just wants to extort money. Make sure you ask the right questions. Use the Foodborne Illness Report (also found in the Manager’s Toolbox) to help you, and look for the signs. There are some common signs, and a fair amount of research may need to be done before you can make the determination that a claim is false.

Common Signs of a False Foodborne Illness Complaint

The signs listed here aren’t true in every case, but most of the time you can use them to guide you in the right direction.

1. The customer started feeling symptoms less than 4 hours after he or she ate.

As you can see from the section below, the incubation periods of pathogens can run into days after exposure, making it very difficult to pinpoint where someone became ill.

Pathogen Incubation Period

Norovirus: 24–72 hours, typically 36 hours

E. coli: 1–10 days, typically 2–5 days

Listeria: 3–70 days, typically 21 days

Salmonella: 6–72 hours, typically 18–36 hours

Campylobacter: 2–7 days, typically 3–5 days

Many times, the ill customer is convinced he or she became ill right after eating, which is an easy one to dismiss.

2. Be careful of this statement: “I went to the doctor and he said you made me sick.”

This one really bothers me. It’s important to understand how the doctor made this diagnosis. Many doctors want to give their patients an answer. If the symptoms resemble foodborne illness and the person recently ate in a restaurant, the doctor may blame the restaurant without confirming it through tests. Foodborne illness is confirmed through the inspection of a stool sample. This is a very messy procedure, one the patient and the doctor tend to avoid for obvious reasons, and it can take many days before results are announced. If the complainant didn’t submit a stool, then the illness probably isn’t confirmed. If the person says a positive test was taken and confirmed yesterday, then he or she is probably confused or lying. Before diagnosing foodborne illness, doctors should read the CDC’s article on Diagnosis and Management of Foodborne Illness.

If it is a confirmed illness through the right test, then the doctor must notify the health department. In this case, an inspector from the health department most likely will pay you a visit. However, if an inspector hasn’t come to see you, then it shows that an illness probably wasn’t confirmed (I will discuss confirmed cases in the next blog post).

3. The symptoms don’t match foodborne illness.

I’ve worked on a couple cases where the symptoms were simply an upset stomach or one episode of diarrhea or vomiting. If the person had a foodborne illness, the diarrhea and vomiting would go on for many hours or days.

4. There are no other complaints of illness.

With a confirmed foodborne illness, there most likely will be more cases. This is hard to determine because not everyone will call or won’t know where they became ill. The CDC estimates that for every salmonella case, three dozen go unreported. If you are sure there are no other complaints reported to your restaurant or the health department and you have documentation of how much of the suspected food was served, you can determine that a foodborne illness probably didn’t come from your restaurant. Having only one illness complaint on a meal that was served to 100 people on the same day probably isn’t a valid complaint.

5. The customer is complaining about more than his or her illness.

Many times, when I’m interviewing a complainant, the person mostly talks about how bad the service and food were, and they are just looking for their money back. In these cases, it appears the illness complaint is just the cherry on top of an overall dissatisfaction with the experience in an establishment. This is an opportunity to use those customer service skills to try and address the bad food and service problems.

Next Steps

What do you do if the complaint doesn’t match any of these common signs? More investigation is needed. Referring to last week’s blog post on planning, it’s important to check all the temperature logs and employee illness logs, and check for any incidents such as loss of power, water, or any other interruption in service. I’ve done inspections where I found a restaurant operating without hot water or power. This can easily lead to foodborne illness. Unfortunately, sometimes managers make decisions based on money instead of what’s best for serving safe quality food.

After investigating, if you can’t find a reasonable explanation and there doesn’t appear to be any real proof linking your restaurant to the illness, your next actions may depend on the type of accusation. A decision needs to be made on whether or not to try and keep them as a customer. If this can be done in a relatively inexpensive way without admitting guilt, it would be good business to try and make them happy. However, this won’t be possible in the case of fraud. Unfortunately, there are dishonest people just looking to shake down restaurants by throwing around words like “E. coli” and “norovirus.” These false complaints are relatively easy to spot if you fully investigate the complaints.

Be careful not to discount every complaint as false. Take your time and do a thorough investigation. Be prepared to handle the unthinkable—a confirmed case. By following these steps to weed out the false complaints, you are protecting your organization and reducing liability and costs.

For more information on this topic, read Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Reality of Proving a Foodborne Illness Case. If you have any questions or need help with a foodborne illness complaint, please contact me: Stay tuned for our next blog post—Anatomy of a Foodborne Illness Complaint, Part 3: Confirmed Cases.

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