Investigating a food poisoning allegation

Published: 13 Feb 2018

The CSC helpdesk regularly supports our clients when they receive food poisoning allegations from customers. Over recent months we have witnessed an increase in the number of such complaints, and whilst it is not pleasant for any business to be on the receiving end, every food poisoning allegation must be treated seriously and fully and thoroughly  investigated.

It is critical that our clients ensure they are fully compliant with food safety legislation. The increase in the litigation culture and introduction of the sentencing guidance in 2016 means that food establishments are at a greater risk of financial penalties and fines if found guilty of a food poisoning outbreak, and breach of food safety law.

Shaafiek Christian, CSC Helpdesk Consultant examines a recent alleged food poisoning complaint at one of our prestigious fine dining restaurant clients:

The first part of an investigation involves assessing the information provided from the complainant via the completed 'Alleged Food Poisoning Questionnaire', the aim being to establish if food poisoning has been confirmed.

Fact based evidence needs to be obtained including history of foods consumed, symptoms and onset times.  If a visit had been made to the GP, has a diagnostic test been conducted on a stool sample confirming actual food poisoning.

The second part of an investigation involves assessing data and due diligence records from the client for the service period where food poisoning is alleged to have occurred. The aim being to establish if food poisoning, once it had been confirmed had indeed originated from the kitchen.

The impact of asking the right questions and obtaining critical information about specific onset times and symptoms from the complainants in the first instance cannot be understated.

In a recent case study, one of our fine dining restaurants were subject to the threat of litigation when some members within a party of ten complained of vomiting and diarrhoea following an afternoon tea. The complainants worked for a law firm, so it was no surprise that formal letters were being received even midway through the investigation.

Close examination of the facts of this case revealed that no visits were made to the GP, no diagnostics test had been made and the complainants had recovered after relatively short symptoms and onset times. After the information gathering process had been completed, it was noted that many portions of the same food items were sold on the day with no ill effects reported, there were no reported staff illness. Management processes were assessed for the time scale of the service of the alleged food poisoning. These were found to be conducted and documented within the specified time scales. Taking all the facts into account, the cause of this compliant turned out to be inconclusive.

Fundamentals of conducting a food poisoning investigation:

  • Obtain as much factual evidence/ information from the complainant as possible
  • Asking the right questions at the very beginning can make a huge difference between winning and losing a case
  • Never admit liability or make assumptions if all the facts have not been obtained
  • If you are going to make a gesture of good will or a compensatory offer, do so WITHOUT admission of liability, failure to do so will almost certainly result in you being perceived as guilty or having something to hide

If you require assistance with alleged food poisoning complaints, please contact us