Anatomy of a Foodborne Illness Complaint, Part 3: Confirmed Cases


If you have a customer with a confirmed foodborne illness, the local health department will probably visit you. A case is confirmed when a stool sample from an infected person is cultured and the harmful bacteria is found. This process can take a few days. When there is a confirmed case, the health department is contacted and they begin an investigation to try and determine the source of the infection. Many questions are asked of the infected person, including about where they ate. If there are restaurants involved, they will look at the timeline and try and guess which ones could be the source. Some can be ruled out, and others may need further investigation.

This may lead them to your restaurant. It doesn’t mean they are implicating you in the case, but there is enough suspicion for them to come and talk to you about it. They will most likely do a health inspection as well. If there is only one case and the health inspectors don’t find any evidence during the inspection that implicates your restaurant as the source, then that most likely will be the end of it. However, they will ask you a series of questions:

  1. Have you had any sick employees recently?
  2. Have any of your employees left the country recently?
  3. What is your company’s policy on bare-hand contact? (Obviously, this answer should be “We don’t allow bare hand contact.”)
  4. What is your company’s sick employee policy? (Yes, you need one. Check our blog post on this topic.)
  5. Do you know what the top 5 reportable foodborne illnesses are?
  6. How do you monitor temperatures?
  7. Can we see the logs for that day?
  8. How do you prepare/cook the suspected food?
  9. How many of the suspected food did you sell on that day?
  10. What additional documentation do you have to show your food safety practices are in compliance?

Protect Your Restaurant—Have Documentation

As you can see, having plenty of documentation to support your case is very helpful. Part 1 (planning) of this series gives examples of documentation that could be used in this case. Be honest and answer all of their questions. If you have spent the time to have a lot of these policies in place, it should be easy for you to get through the visit.

Foodborne Illness Outbreak

If there are multiple cases that have emerged and their common denominator is your restaurant, then you may have a foodborne illness outbreak on your hands. This can come two ways—the health department notifying you or your own customers contacting you. Two cases that are unrelated except for their illnesses and where they were exposed is an outbreak. When this happens, it becomes more likely that you might be the cause of the outbreak. In reality, if there are two cases, then more will follow. Cases may accumulate over a period of weeks or longer. In the next blog post, we’ll look at what happens if you are involved in an outbreak and how to manage it. In the meantime, check out these links:

Kansas Department of Health and Environment: Foodborne Illness Outbreak and Investigation Manual

World Health Organization: Foodborne Disease Outbreaks—Guidelines for Investigation and Control

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Guide to Confirming a Diagnosis in Foodborne Disease

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: What You Should Know about Government Response to Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

Please contact me with any further questions you may have about this topic:

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