Investigating a food poisoning complaint: Asking the right questions is key

Categories: ,
Published: 19 Feb 2019

We have witnessed a recent influx of alleged food poisoning complaints to the CSC helpline, it is critical that our clients ensure they are fully compliant with food safety legislation.

Food poisoning accusations can have terrible consequences for businesses – especially in the age of social media and instant online reviews.

The increase in the litigation culture and recent introduction of the new sentencing guidance 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 provides advice on asking the RIGHT questions and initial action to be taken when your business receives a food poisoning allegation.

The first part of a food poisoning investigation is to confirm if actual food poisoning had taken place. The second part of the investigation is to establish if once confirmed, food poisoning can be attributed to food consumed at the restaurant:

  • A food poisoning accusation needs to be taken seriously, and with empathy. Acknowledge receipt of the complaint and inform the guest that an investigation into the complaint will be carried out.
  • Remember that the initial communication with the guest is to acknowledge the complaint and to obtain key information which will be pertinent to the investigation. While it’s likely that your first instinct will be to apologise to the customer, it may actually make the situation worse for you. Never apologise or admit liability as you are still information gathering at this stage.
  • By apologising, 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.
  • During the initial steps of the investigation, key information will need to be obtained from both the complainant and the food business. 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.
  • Information which needs to be obtained from the guest include:

- 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 symptom

- Whether they have seen a doctor for a clinical diagnosis. It is essential that a pathogen be isolated from a stool sample to confirm that actual food poisoning had taken place. Remember, it is up to the complainant to confirm that food poisoning had taken place (self diagnosis or telephonic advice from a medical professional does not confirm that food poisoning has occurred).

The internal investigation must also be carried out on the food unit where the food was prepared. 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 safety management systems, due diligence records and internal food poisoning investigation data will need to be assessed. It needs to be established how many portions of the implicated food items were served. Were any other complaints during the service where food poisoning is alleged to have occurred?

A full thorough investigation can only be carried out once all the fact based evidence has been obtained.

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 goodwill 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

In the event of a confirmed food poisoning outbreak, implicated food items need to be isolated and local authority informed. Only once the reasons for the outbreak have been identified, corrected with the premises given the all clear, can business commence as usual.

If you require assistance with alleged food poisoning complaints and need peace of mind, please contact us, our team of experts will only be too happy to help, after all compliance isn’t expensive, it is priceless!