Recent Headlines

A large fast food chain

In December, 2006 an E. coli outbreak affected 71 customers across five states. Eight people developed kidney failure, and 53 people were hospitalized. The outbreak was linked to contaminated lettuce.

Eatery fined in food poisoning case

The owners of a Redwood City Mexican restaurant will pay $55,000 in fines and make sure that employees wash their hands as part of an agreement struck with the San Mateo County district attorney after a major food poisoning outbreak.

These headlines can make the most seasoned restaurateur more than a bit queasy. Any hint of food poisoning can provide severe reputational damage and may put your business at risk. Handling such accusations correctly is vital for your business’ and your customers’ health.

Responding to a Food Poisoning Accusation

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning occurs when a person ingests food or drink that has been contaminated by a pathogen, either bacterial (Salmonella, E. Coli, etc.) or viral (Hepatitis A, etc.). These pathogens can also spread via person to person or coming into contact with contaminated surfaces. The impact of foodborne illnesses can vary from minor to life threatening, depending on the contaminant and the age and physical condition of the ill person.

Food Poisoning can be caused by a variety of factors.

  1. Food improperly prepared.
  2. Food improperly stored.
  3. Food used after its use-by date.
  4. Cross contamination.
  5. Food handled by someone who is sick or with poor hand hygiene.

How do I respond to a food poisoning accusation?

The typical food poisoning complaint will be via telephone to the restaurant. Your first inkling may be when a patron calls to inform you they ate at your store last night and now are terribly ill. In the age of the internet and viral social media, how you respond may determine the future of your business.


  • Admit any responsibility.
  • Apologize for their illness. This is a tough one since we are in this business to provide hospitality but since “no good deed goes unpunished” an apology will only serve to reinforce a plaintiff attorney’s case.
  • If a foodborne illness is substantiated, do not contact the affected parties since this could be construed as witness tampering.


  • Show care and concern. You are in the hospitality business and you want to exceed your guests’ expectations so being empathetic should be second nature.
  • Inform the caller that you have had no other illness reports (which is typically the case) and ask if anyone else in their party is ill.
  • Determine what foods the caller ate (this may be facilitated by the sales receipt).
  • If no one else is ill you are dealing with a “one off” and it may not be food related or even as a result of dining at your restaurant.
  • Ensure you get the callers contact information.
  • Notify the chef immediately. He should:
    • Ensure his employees are following all food handling rules.
    • Secure all the ingredients in the dish with potential contamination.
    • If there are more complaints, local health authorities, the CDC, and vendors must be contacted.
    • All affected diners must be contacted to offer them assistance and reimbursement.
  • Your obligation now is to clean, contain, and cooperate with local and federal health agencies.

Be prepared

Have a plan, practice it, and communicate it to your employees. Determine who is authorized to speak to patrons complaining of illness and what the proper response should be. The plan should also clearly outline the steps to take from how to respond to the customer, notify vendors, to when and how to contact the authorities. A key personnel/agency call list should be maintained.


Since preventing a complaint is both easier and better for your reputation, consider the following steps.

  • Ensure food is not left unrefrigerated for extended periods of time.
  • Be aware of any changes to the food’s appearance.
  • Ensure use-by dates on all ingredients is strictly followed.
  • Source ingredients only from reputable suppliers.
  • If possible, maintain a sample of the food in question so that it can be tested by health authorities.
  • Ensure all surfaces, utensils and equipment are thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis. Kitchen sanitation should be of the highest priority.
  • Hygiene must be constantly stressed and monitored.
  • If an employee is ill, they cannot work. This is a non-negotiable work rule.

Symptoms and Timing of Foodborne Illnesses per the Mayo Clinic

30 MIN. – 60 MIN.
Nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. Most people also have diarrhea.
  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
  • Foods that are not cooked after handling, such as sliced meats, puddings, pastries, and sandwiches.
6 – 24 HOURS
Diarrhea, stomach cramps. Vomiting and fever are uncommon. Usually begins suddenly and lasts for less than 24 hours.
12 – 48 HOURS
Diarrhea, nausea/stomach pain, vomiting
12 – 72 HOURS
Diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, vomiting
18 – 36 HOURS
Double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech. Difficulty swallowing, breathing and dry mouth. Muscle weakness and paralysis. Symptoms start in the head and move down as severity increases.
1 – 4 DAYS
Watery diarrhea, nausea. Stomach cramps, vomiting, fever, chills
2 – 5 DAYS
Diarrhea (often bloody), stomach cramps/pain, fever
3 – 4 DAYS
Severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. Around 5-10% of people diagnosed with this infection develop a life-threatening complication.
Watery diarrhea, loss of appetite and weight loss. Stomach cramps/pain, bloating, increased gas, nausea, and fatigue.
1 – 4 WEEKS
Pregnant women typically experience fever and other flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue and muscle aches. Infections during pregnancy can lead to serious illness or even death in newborns. Other people (most often older adults): headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions in addition to fever and muscle aches.

About the Author

Jim Stover is the Senior Vice President of Loss Control Real Estate & Hospitality practice for Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services, Inc.’s hospitality portfolio. In this position, he is responsible for the safety and security services offered to hospitality companies throughout North America. The Gallagher Way. Since 1927.

Jim Stover Senior
Vice President of Loss Control Real Estate & Hospitality Practice