How To Deal With Food-Borne Illness Complaints

Food-borne illness complaints can have a serious impact on a food business. Learn the 4 steps to dealing with these types of complaints in this handy guide.
How To Deal With Food-Borne Illness Complaints
March 20, 2017

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

Whilst it’s obviously best to try to avoid food-borne illness outbreaks, it’s important to be prepared and have a plan in place to deal with complaints.

Responding to Food-Borne Illness Complaints

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, this is your best opportunity to prevent the same thing happening to others.

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 err on the side of caution and investigate all complaints.

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; and
  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. 

As a first step, if you’re an employee, you should check if your manager or supervisor is available to handle the complaint. If your manager isn’t available, don’t delay or postpone the complaint. It needs to be dealt with immediately.

Customers suffering from food-borne illness are likely to be upset and distressed. Always take customer complaints seriously and be polite, attentive and empathetic to customers who are raising concerns.

Collect information from the person making the complaint. Ask for the following:

  • Contact details including name, address and telephone number
  • Details about what they ate and when they ate it including date and time
  • Whether other members in their party ate the same food
  • Whether any other members in their party are suffering food-borne illness
  • Symptoms they are experiencing
  • When the symptoms started
  • Whether they’ve visited a doctor, and if so what was the diagnosis
  • Also ask if they’ve 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. Doing so could cause even more problems for the customer, you, and your food business!

Part 2. Informing The Health Authorities

After a complaint's been made, you should contact your local health authorities to inform them. 

In some jurisdictions it’s mandatory that you do this, so be sure to check the rules and regulations in your local area.

Whilst 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. 

Quite often, food-borne illness outbreaks do not originate from one food establishment but from a supplier that provides food products to many businesses. If this can be identified early on, other affected food businesses can be notified and your actions can prevent other people from getting sick.

Remember - it may not be your business that’s the source of the outbreak, and even if it is, prompt attention can stop a bad situation from getting even worse!

Part 3. Investigating the Problem

There are many causes for 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; and
  • Inadequate cleaning and sanitising

Your Food Safety Plan should contain instructions of how to investigate food-borne illness complaints. As a minimum, you should do the following:

Check on Employees

Consider which staff members could be involved. If a staff member has been sick recently, then exclude them from the workplace until a medical specialist has confirmed that it is safe for them to work with food. Provide all employees with refresher training on the correct procedures for personal hygiene.

Review Menu Items & Ingredients

Consider all items on the menu that could be affected. If a person is sick after eating a particular dish, make a list of other menu items that share the same ingredients, and remove these from sale until the cause is identified.

Also consider where the ingredients are stored, and whether cross-contamination could have occurred.

Deal with Suspect Food Items

Remove any suspect foods or ingredients from production or from storage. Keep a sample for testing in a tight sealed container. Label the container clearly so that it doesn’t get used by an unaware staff member.

Be sure to also remove any foods that could have been cross-contaminated.

Part 4. Crisis Management

It’s a good idea to 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. 

Choose one person in the Crisis Management team to lead all communications with the media and the general public. It’s a good idea to invest in some specialist Public Relations training for this team member so that they are prepared if an incident does take place. Let all employees know who this Communications person is, and advise employees that all requests for information should be directed to the nominated Communications person 

For each potential serious incident identified by the Crisis Management Team, create simple easy-to-follow instructions. 

Store these instructions in an easy-to-find place and tell employees where to find them. A good place to store them is next to the telephone, alongside an emergency contact list. 

The emergency contact list should include contact information for all the people and organisations that you may need to contact if a crisis occurs, for example:

  • Police
  • Ambulance
  • Fire Service
  • Local health authorities
  • Pest control
  • Your plumber; and
  • Your electrician

Hopefully a food-borne illness outbreak never occurs at your food business - but with some forward preparation you can be prepared to deal with such incidents if the worst happens.