Washington Restaurant Market Watch: What to do when customers claim your food made them sick

Washington Restaurant Market Watch: What to do when customers claim your food made them sick https://wahospitality.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/foodpoisoning0616.jpg

By Paul Schlienz

It’s every restaurant operator’s nightmare.

Restaurants strive to provide wholesome food that meets the highest standards of safety, but despite their best efforts, every now and then, customers will get sick and claim your food was the culprit.

When this happens, restaurant operators need to tread carefully. While customers’ claims that your food made them sick may be true, it is also possible that there is a completely different cause for their illness.

“Although you may feel terrible about a sick patron, never apologize or admit any wrongdoing if a customer complains about food poisoning,” business and marketing analyst Darlene Peer wrote.  “Since contaminated food can take anywhere from minutes to days to cause illness, it’s possible that your customer is ill from something he ate at home or another restaurant. Having a procedure in place to deal with potential problems may help your restaurant avoid unwanted negative publicity or lawsuits.”

When a customer claims your food caused an illness, contact the manager who was on the scene. A customer may start feeling ill while still in your restaurant or call from home days later. In both scenarios, the manager on duty must take down the details and let a customer know that his or her claims will be thoroughly investigated.

Be sure to fill out a complaint form when a customer claims your food caused an illness. If your restaurant does not already have such a form, you can find sample complaint forms online. Essential information you’ll need includes the date, customer name and contact information, what was eaten by the customer filing the complaint, what was eaten by other people at the table and a description of the symptoms. If the customer visited a hospital or doctor, ask for a copy of the report from that visit to attach to the complaint form.

It is essential that you investigate the kitchen. Find out if any of employees were ill that day or if cross-contamination was possible. If you receive multiple complaints, narrow down the possible culprit. Check with other locations if the potentially contaminated food source was distributed elsewhere. This may help you zero in on the illness’ source.

Don’t forget to contact your insurance provider. If a customer is claiming bodily injury or is threatening a lawsuit, your property and casualty insurer needs to know immediately.

If other customers call or report illness, be sure to record the details. Make sure you have a record of what was eaten and when. If there is a discernible pattern, you’ll have an easier time determining if one of your dishes actually did cause patrons your guests to fall ill.

Contact your local health department if you receive more than one complaint. If you still have samples or leftovers of the suspected culprit, the health department can test it to see if it caused the illness.

Above all, never admit wrongdoing or apologize to a customer unless the customer’s claim is proven through testing. An apology can be construed as an admission of guilt if the case goes to court.

“We get accused and sued for food borne issues quite a bit, though it’s extremely rare for there to be merit,” cook and food blogger Jonas Mikka Luster wrote. “So we have to be careful what we say and how we say it.”