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How to handle a food poisoning accusation

Posted by Ivana Rnjak on Oct 19, 2017 10:04:40 AM

There aren’t many things that will switch on the panic button for a hospitality venue owner as quickly as a food poisoning accusation.

A food poisoning accusation will put your reputation on the line, and may even jeopardize your entire business.

Handling such an accusation correctly is vital for the good of your business – and for the health and wellbeing of your customers!

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What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning, or foodborne illness, is a blanket term for illnesses that occur as a result of ingesting contaminated food or drinks. The effects can range from unpleasant to severe to life-threatening.

Food poisoning occurs when a person ingests food that has been contaminated by a pathogen. These pathogens can also spread via contaminated surfaces, or from person to person. The pathogens can be bacterial (such as salmonella or E.coli) or viral (such as hepatitis A).


How does food poisoning occur?

There are many ways that food poisoning can occur:

  • If food hasn’t been prepared correctly (certain foods are high-risk for accommodating bugs and toxins)
  • If food hasn’t been properly stored
  • If food has been used after its use-by date
  • If cross contamination has occurred (where the bugs and toxins are spread among food, surfaces, utensils and equipment)
  • If food has been handled by someone who is sick
  • If food has been handled by someone with poor hand hygiene

More often than not, food poisoning can be avoided, if food safety procedures are adhered to.



How do I respond to a food poisoning accusation?


Food poisoning accusations can have terrible consequences for businesses – especially in the age of social media and instant online reviews. How you handle an accusation matters.

In 2007, a bakery in NSW was shut down and fined $42,000 after causing salmonella poisoning. Their flagrant disregard for food safety laws led to 319 people falling ill, putting a massive strain on the public health system. Two years earlier, the bakery had been issued warnings about their food handling practices, but failed to make any adjustments. This disregard for public health led to the worst food poisoning outbreak the state had ever experienced.

Be prepared

Even if you have a perfect track record as a venue, you should have a contingency plan in place in the event of a food poisoning accusation. The plan should clearly outline the steps to take in such an event – from how to respond to the customer, to how to contact the authorities.

This plan should be written down and every employee should be familiar with it. If a new employee takes the call with a sick and disgruntled customer, you don’t want their response to escalate the situation. That’s why it’s a good idea to incorporate the food poisoning contingency plan as part of your employee training.  



Responding to the customer


A food poisoning accusation needs to be taken seriously, and with empathy. But while it’s likely that your first instinct will be to apologize to the customer, it may actually make the situation worse for you.

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By apologizing, you are essentially admitting guilt. This leaves you open to legal action that could land your business in big financial trouble – not to mention it could ruin your reputation entirely.

Pinpointing the source of food poisoning can be very difficult. There is a good chance that the customer fell ill from something else. But you do have to take immediate action to respond to the accusation.

If a customer accuses you of causing food poisoning, you need to gather the relevant information. Aside from their contact details (so you can get back to them following your investigation) you should ask:

  • What they ate and when
  • The symptoms they are exhibiting and when they started
  • Whether anyone else from their party had the same food
  • Whether anyone else from their party is experiencing similar symptoms
  • Whether they have seen a doctor for diagnosis

It’s important to let the customer know that you have taken their complaint seriously and will be taking immediate steps to investigate.

As part of your food poisoning contingency plan, it is a good idea to have a customer complaint form that deals specifically with this issue. This will ensure that you will be provided with all the information you need to follow up the matter.



Investigating your venue


After receiving a complaint from a customer, you will have to check the food you are preparing, the kitchen where it is prepared, and the employees who prepare it.

Food

It may not always be obvious if food has been contaminated with a pathogen – often the contamination is invisible. But there are ways to reduce the risk of this happening and you should ensure these practices are strictly followed in your venue.

This includes:

  • Ensuring food hasn’t been left unrefrigerated for extended periods of time
  • Keeping an eye on any changes to appearance
  • Checking the use-by dates on all ingredients
  • Only sourcing ingredients from reputable suppliers

It’s a good idea to keep a sample of the food that the customer believes made them sick, so that it can be tested by health authorities.

Kitchen

Because pathogens can easily spread, they do not stay confined to food. If you are accused of causing food poisoning, you’ll have to ensure all surfaces, utensils and equipment in your kitchen are safe to use again.

To reduce the risk of pathogens breeding in your kitchen, cleanliness needs to be a priority at all times.

Employees

Hand hygiene plays a massive role in preventing the spread of pathogens, so a work culture that puts an emphasis on hygiene is a must. Your employees should have the means to thoroughly and regularly wash their hands, and as the venue owner you should be keeping a keen eye on this.

Food poisoning can also occur as a result of employee sickness, so you need to be aware of your employees’ health and wellbeing. If your staff are unwell, they should not be at work – no matter how busy you are, or how much they need that shift. With the health and safety of your customers and the very existence of your business at stake, it’s just not worth the risk.

Contacting health authorities

It can be difficult to pinpoint the source of foodborne illnesses. Additionally, it can be difficult to distinguish between an illness brought on by contaminated food and an illness that has similar symptoms (such as gastroenteritis).

Food allergies and intolerances may also display symptoms that resemble food poisoning.

But whether you believe your venue is responsible or not, you should contact health authorities. In some parts of the world this is mandatory, so make sure you are thoroughly familiar with the food safety laws in your state or country.

Many foodborne illnesses can be traced back to one contaminated batch that has sparked an outbreak. You can help trace the contamination and contain the outbreak by contacting health authorities.

If there is no contaminated batch that the illness can be traced to, you can narrow your investigation to the state of your kitchen or the conduct of your staff. You may, hopefully, find that your venue was not responsible after all!

 


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Ivana Rnjak.png Ivana Rnjak is a Content Writer at Typsy. A waitress and bartender in a previous life, Ivana is an aspiring academic with an unwavering love of brunch – no matter what Anthony Bourdain says!

 

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Categories: Hospitality operations, Tips for hospitality managers, Reputation management, Tips for owners

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