How to Respond to a Food-Borne Illness Complaint

If the food prepared by your business has caused someone to become sick, acting quickly can prevent the same thing happening to others.
How to Respond to a Food-Borne Illness Complaint
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 quickly can prevent the same thing happening to others.

Food-borne illness complaints or claims 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 eat.

However, even if you suspect that the customer didn’t get sick from eating food that your business 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 complaint
  4. Crisis management

Part 1. Dealing with the customer

All employees in the 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 of their party ate the same food
  • if any other members of 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 doctor, 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

Your food may not have been the culprit, but it's up to you to do your due diligence. There are many causes of food-borne illness outbreaks.

Common causes of food-borne illness include:

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

Review your business's food safety records, checklists, shift schedules and other documentation to investigate all of the above, as well as any other potential causes identified in your Food Safety Plan. 

Part 4. Crisis management

Set up a Crisis Management Team who understands their responsibilities if the worst happens. The Crisis Management Team could be comprised of owners, managers, chefs, HR personnel and anyone else in a position of authority in the business.

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.

Examples of serious incidents could include:

  • a food-borne illness outbreak
  • a customer suffering from an allergic reaction 
  • a customer choking on a physical contaminant in their food (e.g. a piece of broken glass, wire bristle from scrubbing brush)

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

Get more information about how to handle different kinds of customer complaints with the CIFS Guide to Handling Customer Food Complaints.