Foodborne illnesses cause a considerable number of hospitalizations and deaths around the world annually, and the role of restaurants in food poisoning incidents has been widely publicized. Every restaurant owner wants to avoid foodborne illness incidents and accusations, since a single lawsuit stemming from a food poisoning incident can have serious consequences for the restaurant's business, including poor brand image, high legal costs, and reduced customer loyalty. This article examines how restaurant operators can handle food poisoning allegations from customers. Before discussing these recommendations, let us first examine the cause of some common foodborne illnesses.

When a customer claims to have become ill after eating at a restaurant, it may be a case of foodborne illness. A foodborne illness outbreak can be said to occur when two or more customers become ill after dining at the same restaurant. Eating food contaminated with harmful pathogens is one of the primary causes of food poisoning. The majority of foodborne illnesses and outbreaks are caused by pathogens such as Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and Staphylococcus aureus, as well as viruses such as norovirus and astrovirus. Meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, unpasteurized dairy products, and some vegetables are among the foods often associated with food poisoning.

Some of the reasons food contamination occurs in restaurants are cross-contamination, poor personal hygiene of staff, poor receiving controls, improper storage, and during the preparation and service of food. Vomiting, nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea are the most common symptoms of most foodborne illnesses, and they often manifest two to six hours after consuming contaminated food. Some pathogens cause illnesses that may not arise until several days after exposure. Everyone is susceptible to food poisoning, although particular populations such as the elderly, pregnant women, children under the age of five, and people with impaired immune systems are more vulnerable. The vast majority of patients recover in a few days without medical intervention, but some suffer from severe symptoms that necessitate hospitalization. In the worst-case scenario, food poisoning can cause organ damage and death. The severity of the food poisoning is dictated by the amount of contaminated food consumed, the type of pathogen, and the individual's age and overall health status.

Addressing Foodborne Illness Allegations

Restaurants must handle foodborne illness claims professionally, and a framework for investigating consumer food poisoning allegations must be in place. It is vital that restaurant top management choose someone capable of competently handling customer claims of food poisoning and incidents of foodborne illness outbreaks. The responsibility must be assigned either to a restaurant manager or an executive chef. Designated individuals at the restaurant may also be asked to handle media coverage resulting from such incidents.

Restaurant managers are often the first choice for this role, since the processes involved in food preparation and service are scrutinized when food poisoning events are investigated. Another reason is that restaurant managers are frequently the first point of contact for customers. It is crucial to emphasize that if the restaurant manager is entrusted with handling food poisoning complaints, senior management must be kept up to date on every complaint that a customer raises with the restaurant. Senior management support is also essential when dealing with such concerns because these instances include calling the local public health department, engaging an attorney, meeting with vendors, and communicating with insurance companies. Senior management must nominate a management representative to provide the necessary assistance.

Customers also want to be heard and have their concerns addressed. It goes without saying that effectively handling food poisoning customer complaints can help avoid negative brand image and personal liability claims. It also contributes to the restaurant's professional image. Restaurant owners should follow the procedure outlined below to effectively handle allegations of food poisoning.

Show Empathy Without Accepting Responsibility

Customers typically report food poisoning by calling the restaurant directly, but some may also report on the aggregator's website or social media pages. Whether a consumer phones the restaurant directly or posts a complaint on social media, it is vital to be sympathetic and empathic with the guest. Assure the guest that the complaint is being taken seriously and that it will be discussed with the team, investigated, and the result of the investigation communicated to the guest. In addition, notify the guest if no other customers have complained of food poisoning.

Remember to be empathetic and caring, but refrain from accepting responsibility for the food poisoning incident. This recommendation is made for two reasons. First, if the restaurant takes responsibility, it can be used as evidence in court if the customer files a personal injury lawsuit. Another plausible reason is that the restaurant has not yet investigated the foodborne illness incident, and furthermore, customers may have eaten contaminated food somewhere other than the restaurant.

Another thing to remember when dealing with food poisoning allegations is to refrain from passing judgment on the incident. Never assume or tell a customer that they acquired food poisoning from somewhere else, rather than from your restaurant's food. Furthermore, never give medical advice or agree to pay for the guest's medical treatment. In some cases, customers threaten to report the incident to the Health Department or file a personal injury lawsuit; in these instances, avoid becoming aggressive with the guest or engaging in an argument.     

The next step is to gather information from the customer. The following information must be collected:

  • Customer’s name and contact details.
  • When did the customer dine at the restaurant, and what dish was ordered? Make sure to ask if there were any modifications made to the order per the customer's request, as this could indicate an ingredient substitution or addition that would not normally be included in that dish.
  • Ask if the customer dined alone or in a group. If they dined in a group, did any of the other members consume the same food and experience similar symptoms?
  • Did the customer take leftovers from the meal home with them? If yes, how was the food handled before it arrived home, and how it was handled after it arrived home until it was consumed?
  • What symptoms is the customer experiencing?
  • When did the customer begin experiencing symptoms?
  • If symptoms have already abated, how long did the symptoms last?
  • What foods did they consume before and after dining at the restaurant?
  • Did the customer seek medical advice? Request a copy of the medical report, if they have seen a doctor. If they have not sought medical advice for their symptoms, then encourage them to do so.
  • Ask if they have notified the local environmental health department.
  • Request that the customer share a copy of their bill. The customer’s dining details must be verified.
  • Inquire if the customer has arranged a laboratory analysis on any food leftovers. If they have, request a copy of the report.

Document the Foodborne Illness Complaint

Documenting a food poisoning allegation is the first step in investigating it. Fill out a food poisoning complaint form or an incident report with all of the essential details, after the customer's dining information has been verified. Public health officers may seek a copy of the complaint form during an investigation. It can also be used as evidence documentation in food poisoning lawsuits. Every restaurant must have a foodborne illness complaint form readily available.

Inform the Local Health Department

Restaurant owners are recommended to notify the local health authorities of the food poisoning incident and inform them that the food poisoning accusation has been documented, the restaurant staff has been informed, and an investigation is underway. In some countries, restaurant owners are required to notify local health authorities when a food poisoning incident occurs. This illustrates that the customer's complaint is taken seriously and highlights the restaurant's dedication to rectifying the incident. Moreover, the incident, according to authorities, must be reported by the restaurant business rather than by the guest.

In times of crisis, the public health department can be the restaurant's most valuable ally. In cases of foodborne illness outbreaks, a doctor at the hospital may alert the local public health department and share customer information with them. Stool samples are often tested to identify the pathogen responsible for the food poisoning. If foodborne pathogens are discovered in victims' stool, then the doctor may notify the public health department to determine whether the food poisoning case is linked to a foodborne illness outbreak.

When a public health officer inspects a restaurant following an incident of foodborne illness, the restaurant's food handling processes are reviewed, employees are interviewed, and food samples are collected for testing. The food poisoning complaint form should be given to the investigating officer when a public health official requests it. Once the public health department's investigation is concluded, it is prudent to request the inspection report and seek the health department's advice. This will aid in the discovery and troubleshooting of problems, as well as the establishment of corrective actions.

Based on the investigation findings, the public health inspector may request that the restaurant close voluntarily. Voluntary closures are not enforced, but following them can help prevent the restaurant's reputation from further erosion. The environmental health team will later re-inspect the restaurant to determine whether or not the problems that led to the foodborne illness outbreak have been corrected. Restaurants are permitted to reopen only after the environmental health officer is satisfied with the corrective actions implemented.

Investigate the Incident

Restaurant managers must analyze the procedures involved in food preparation and service to uncover the likelihood and source of the food contamination. This includes the following:

  • Check to ensure that the food item was adequately inspected and received in compliance with the receiving controls. Notify the supplier if food items are received in line with receiving controls, but contamination is suspected at the supplier's end—for example, food poisoning contracted after consuming raw oysters that are correctly received and prepared.
  • Inspect temperature logs for refrigerators and walk-in coolers to check that ingredients were stored at the proper temperature. This helps eliminate the possibility of contamination during storage. When specific ingredients or food items are in doubt, request that the chef not use them. Such items must be kept frozen and sent to a laboratory for testing. These efforts will help prevent future foodborne illness outbreaks.
  • Check with the chef to ensure that the meal was prepared in accordance with food safety standards and cooked to the minimum safe temperature. Were the ingredients fresh and handled properly, and was the equipment used to cook the food sanitary at the time of use? Determine who prepared the food and verify their health status.
  • Check whether food was contaminated at any point during the service. Was the food handled safely throughout the service? For example, if a buffet was served, was the food kept at the proper temperature? Were any of the service members ill or did they exhibit any symptoms of illness? When handling food, did the service employees maintain personal hygiene and sanitary service procedures?
  • Determine whether the same food was served to other customers.

After the investigation is concluded, the restaurant manager must write an investigation report outlining the findings (whether or not the restaurant's food was deemed to be responsible for the food poisoning) and submit it to top management. A copy of the food sample report, customer invoice, kitchen order ticket copy, and food poisoning complaint form must be attached to the investigation report. The restaurant must keep a copy of the report on file. During an inspection, the public health officer may request to see a copy of the investigation report.

Follow Up With the Customer

Inform the guest if the investigation reveals that the restaurant food was not to blame for the food poisoning. To avoid similar incidents in the future, it is always preferable to revamp the restaurant's food safety practices. If it is determined that restaurant food was to blame for food poisoning, then notify the restaurant's attorney. It is also necessary to notify the restaurant's insurance company of the incident. When a lawsuit is filed, an attorney can step in and handle the claim. Remember not to contact the customer after a lawsuit is filed, as this may be interpreted as witness tampering.

Food poisoning lawsuits are often categorized as product liability lawsuits, which is a type of personal injury claim. Many incidents of food poisoning are unreported. This is due to the fact that some people are unaware of foodborne illness in general, and many people experience mild symptoms and recover without medical intervention. However, food poisoning complaints still require prompt and thorough investigation. They are tough to prove, however, since it is difficult to pinpoint the source of the contamination, as well as the cause of the illness. Some people may suffer symptoms days after eating contaminated food, making the determination of the source of contamination challenging. The sooner symptoms appear, the easier it is for medical professionals to determine the cause of the food poisoning.

The evidence available to the claim against the negligent restaurant determines the success of the food poisoning lawsuit. During these types of lawsuits, the restaurant's history of product liability lawsuits, health code breaches, food safety procedures, employee personal hygiene, contractual vendors, and facility cleanliness will be examined. Medical proof of food poisoning, as well as its causes, will also be considered. In cases when public health authorities can prove that contaminated restaurant food was to blame for the foodborne illness outbreak, the foodservice establishment's negligence can be easily established. Another important consideration in food poisoning claims is the time restriction. It is imperative to note that different jurisdictions have different time limits for filing a food poisoning lawsuit.

The law allows the plaintiff (customer) to seek compensation for actual harm experienced, such as medical costs and hospitalization bills, lost income, and subjective losses such as emotional distress and pain and suffering. The law may require the negligent restaurant to pay compensation for disability or organ damage. In the event that a customer dies as a result of food poisoning, surviving family members may file a wrongful death lawsuit to seek compensation. In circumstances where a foreign object—such as metal, plastic, or glass—in food causes consumer injury, such as throat or stomach injury, the law requires the negligent restaurant to compensate the customer.

Incidents of food poisoning are unanticipated and can be extremely damaging to restaurants; however, they are also largely avoidable. Restaurant operators must have a food safety management system in place to strengthen food handling processes. It is also critical that senior leadership build a food safety culture in the restaurant, train and encourage employees to practice safe food handling and serving practices on a constant basis, and appoint a skilled and experienced restaurant manager to monitor restaurant operations. Sourcing food items from reputable and licensed vendors only after successful verification is conducted is equally important. Also, an insurance policy should be chosen that covers the costs of lawsuits originating from food poisoning incidents, such as restaurant contamination insurance.

It is important to remember that consistency is the key to ensuring food safety, and it is always better to be proactive than reactive. Restaurant owners have a social responsibility to protect their customers' health by being proactive in their management and enforcement of food safety practices.

Dhruv Kishore Bole is a hospitality and food safety specialist with qualifications in hotel management, food safety, and quality management systems. He has extensive experience spanning more than 12 years in operational and training roles. His expertise centers on hospitality operation, food and beverage services, and food safety. He is certified by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in food safety competencies. He is currently offering services in the capacity of Faculty, Food & Beverage service at the State Institute of Hotel Management in Siddhpur, India.