Dealing With Food-Borne Illness Complaints

If the food prepared by your business has caused someone to become sick, acting immediately can prevent the same thing happening to others.
October 12, 2017

Every complaint that you receive about food-borne illness must be taken seriously. If the food prepared by your business has caused someone to become sick, acting immediately can prevent the same thing happening to others.

Food-borne illness complaints can have a serious impact on a food business. Even if the business isn’t shut down by the authorities, the damage to your reputation can be hard to overcome.

Some complaints that you receive may not be legitimate. Many people don’t realize that food-borne illnesses have an incubation period. They tend to blame the last meal they ate, especially if it contains ingredients they don’t normally consume.

However, even if you suspect that the customer didn’t get sick from eating food that you prepared, always investigate their complaint just to be sure.

There are four parts to dealing with food-borne illness complaints:

  1. Dealing with the customer
  2. Informing the health authorities
  3. Investigating the problem
  4. Crisis management

Part 1. Dealing with the customer

All employees in a food business should be trained in how to handle food-borne illness complaints.

Ensure that the following information is collected from the person making the complaint:

  • contact details including name, address and telephone number
  • details about what they ate and when they ate it including date and time
  • if other members in their party ate the same food
  • if any other members in their party are suffering a food-borne illness
  • what symptoms they are experiencing
  • when the symptoms started
  • have they visited a doctor and if so what was the diagnosis
  • have they contacted the health authorities

If the customer is still sick and has not already visited a medical specialist, advise them to do so.

Never try to diagnose the type of food-borne illness or pass on medical advice to a person making a complaint.

Part 2. Informing the health authorities

After a complaint has been made, you should contact your local health authorities. In some jurisdictions it is mandatory that you do this, so be sure to check the rules and regulations in your local area.

While you may be worried about the impact on your business, the health authorities need to collect information about food-borne illness outbreaks so that they can identify the source of the outbreak and prevent others from getting sick.

Part 3. Investigating the complaint

There are many causes of food-borne illness outbreaks. Some of the most common ones include:

  • sick employees
  • employees practising poor personal hygiene
  • contaminated food
  • improperly prepared food
  • incorrect time and temperature control of food
  • inadequate cleaning and sanitizing

Use your Food Safety Program to investigate all of the above, as well as any other potential causes listed in your program.

Part 4. Crisis management

Set up a Crisis Management team who understand their responsibilities if the worst happens. The Crisis Management team may include the owners of the business, managers, chefs, HR personnel and anyone else in a position of authority.

Together the Crisis Management team should brainstorm all possible serious incidents that could occur in the food business and how these should be dealt with.

Example incidents could be a food-borne illness outbreak, a customer suffering from an allergic reaction or a physical contaminant such as a piece of wire from a scrubbing brush being found in food.

Should an incident happen, the business must be prepared and able to follow the action plan to deal with the situation.

Get more information on the best way to handle customer food complaints with the CIFS Guide to Handling Customer Food Complaints.