Investigating a food poisoning complaint

Published: 10 May 2016

We have witnessed a recent influx of alleged food poisoning complaints to the CSC helpline, it is therefore more critical than ever for our clients to ensure they are fully compliant with food safety legislation. 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 examines a recent alleged food poisoning complaint at one of our prestigious fine dining restaurant clients:

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. The restaurant in question received a complaint from a family who had recently dined with them. A senior member of the family claimed to have suffered Campylobactor poisoning, which was confirmed by a positive diagnostics test.
The complainants firmly believed that the Campylobactor originated from our client's restaurant kitchen. In line with food safety protocols, I immediately commenced an investigation into the Campylobactor poisoning complaint.
The clients food safety management systems, due diligence records and internal food poisoning investigation data were assessed. More crucially, the completed food safety/medical questionnaire which was completed by the complainant was also assessed which provided a much needed first hand account of onset times and claimed symptoms.

It was noted that the complainant had indicated that ill effects started within 12 hours following the dinner at our client's outlet. As the incubation period for Campylobactor is 2 - 5 days (as outlined in government guidelines), together with high food safety standards observed (by our client) and no other alleged food poisoning complaints being received from other diners during the implicated food service, the findings of the investigation could not link the unfortunate experience to food which was consumed at the clients restaurant.
The findings of the investigation were immediately communicated to the complainant which were soon challenged. The incubation period of Campylobactor and its origin were challenged, with a request also made for my third party investigation data. This together with threats on exposure on media sites such as trip advisor left our client in a very worried state and to a degree, held for ransom.

In an attempt to gain further supporting evidence which would corroborate my findings and put our client at ease, I read the initial email communication between the complainant and the client (the first stage of the complaint). This email revealed that the complainant's family indicated that ill effects commenced on the very evening that they dined at our clients site. Due to the mismatch in incubation times, this was further evidence to confirm that Camplylobactor could not have originated from our client. This information gave our client the reassurance they needed when dealing with such a complaint.

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 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!

Shaafiek Christian, CSC Helpdesk Consultant