How to Handle Foodborne Illness Complaints

Restaurant brand protection

Foodborne illness and food poisoning is a real problem for restaurants. No owner wants to be responsible for making customers sick. Having one foodborne illness complaint can be very traumatic, but look at what Chipotle dealt with last year—six outbreaks in six months, 500 sick people across 10 states. They went around the horn twice with three of the most common foodborne illnesses: Salmonella, Norovirus, and E. coli. They lost more than $10 billion in stock value alone.

Have a Foodborne Illness Response Plan

Most small independent restaurants won’t ever have to deal with foodborne illness at the level of Chipotle’s outbreak, but what do they do when they receive just one complaint? Unfortunately, customers get sick from restaurants, and they can be confused about where they were contaminated. It’s important for every owner to have a foodborne illness response plan. This plan should consist of asking the appropriate questions, collecting data and documentation, enlisting food safety experts if needed, and then developing a plan of action. This is a crucial step in protecting your business and your brand. An incomplete plan could cost a restaurant thousands in unnecessary claims and result in a negative reputation.

How Do the Pros Handle a Foodborne Illness Complaint?

If you feel you’re in over your head, call a food safety expert. Your local health department can also be very helpful assisting in this situation. At Respro Food Safety, we have investigated dozens of complaints on behalf of our clients since 2008. When we call complainants, we give them plenty of room to vent about their experience. We’re not phased by comments like “They got me sick and they’re going to pay” or “I got E. coli from the salmon, what are you going to do about it?” Usually, they want to talk about more than just getting sick. They want to complain about the hostess, slow waiter, bland or cold food, and overall horrible customer service, including the manager they spoke to when they called to report their illness. We listen to all of it.

After listening to the customer, we start asking questions and collecting data—what did they eat, what time did they eat, when did they start feeling symptoms, what were their symptoms, how long did the symptoms last, and many others. The answers to these questions as well as the restaurant documentation in the form of temperature logs, sick employee log, inspection reports, and other illness complaints (more than one complaint should trigger a call to the health department) can help an owner make an educated decision on how to address the complaint(s).

Help Your Customers Solve Their Illness Problem

Remember, these are YOUR customers, whether you got them sick or not, and your overall goal is to help them find out how they got sick, make sure no one else gets sick, and retain them as customers, which will also serve as brand protection for your restaurant. Customers will appreciate the extra steps taken to listen to their issue and help them. If you have an effective plan, you can turn “You made me sick!” into “I’m willing to give your restaurant another chance.”

If you need help developing a foodborne illness response plan or help with an existing complaint, please feel free to contact us at, or visit our website at for more information about how to manage foodborne illness complaints.

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