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What to Do When a Food Illness Complaint Is Lodged...


(The following information originally appeared as sidebar information in the article "Master Diaster—Before It Happens," published in the October, 1999 issue of Food Management.)
Here is an example of a policy for dealing with a foodborne illness complaint in a healthcare setting. It is reproduced with permission from the book HACCP: The Future Challenge, by Char Norton.
Graciously accept the complaint.
Secure all pertinent data, such as name, address, date, time, meal, contents of meal, when and where the food was purchased/served, if food was eaten when purchased, or refrigerated, when symptoms occurred; the names of any others who ate the same food; whether medical attention was sought, and if so the name of the physician.
Take a food history from the complainant, if possible, of all meals and snacks eaten before and after the suspected meal.
Listen carefully to the complaint. Don’t admit liability or offer medical advice. Don’t diagnose or suggest symptoms. Don’t introduce symptoms. Record only what the person said. Note the time the symptoms started. Remain polite and concerned.
Try to preserve a sample of the suspected food for later microbiological testing. Label and store (refrigerate or freeze). Remove from sales.
Evaluate the complaint. Is it only one person, or are there multiple complainants? Does it describe a legitimate illness? What is the attitude of the complainant?
Contact the appropriate people: the owner, general manager, hospital administrator, infection control and risk management, etc.
Contact the local health department (follow the regulations for the individual state). Deal positively with all regulatory agencies. Allow inspectors to inspect the property. Provide requested data. Be cooperative.
Review the information and start an internal investigation to include:
- check all temperature charts
- check all employees on duty at time of incident—was anyone ill?
- check for complaints from the entire staff
- compare notes
- determine if anything is new/different, such as new food items on the menu, new supplier, or new employee
- check environment sanitation
- check date of pest control
-check to determine if new chemicals are being used
If only one or two customers complain, offer refunds or gift certificates. If more complaints are received, follow the established local health regulations
Arrange for medical services (in healthcare establishments with Nursing, Infection Control and Employee Health).
Have food tested by an outside laboratory that microbiologically tests food.
Deal with the media positively. Provide accurate data. Answer only the questions they ask. Avoid jargon. Remain calm and professional. Tell the truth. Do not try to bluff or give out misinformation.
Continue to investigate.
Take corrective action as appropriate.
Review outcome with all managers and staff. Change policies and procedures, and make corrections, as appropriate.
As appropriate, file all details for future reference.


Some Dos and Don'ts


If an incident is serious enough, you will probably have to deal with media coverage. Do it wrong and the damage to your and your institution’s reputation could be far-reaching. Here are some tips from Vanessa Rugo, crisis counsel with the Boston-based crisis communications firm Clarke & Co.
Don’t have multiple spokespeople. Determine a single spokesperson beforehand who will speak for the institution. Having multiple conduits of information will muddle the message and may result in contradictory pronouncements that destroy your credibility.
Don’t minimize the situation, especially before all the facts are in. Blythely dismissing a potentially serious situation with an “it’s all taken care of” or “it’s no big deal” attitude only communicates that your institution is either clueless or uncaring.
Don’t stonewall. If you honestly don’t have information, say so and promise to deliver it once you do (and then follow through). But if you appear to be evading legitimate questions, you will not only invite more questions, but they will come packaged with a healthy dose of skepticism that will make your job even harder.
Don’t go out there unprepared. Whoever speaks for the institution should either be a media relations professional or someone who has had some preparation in dealing with the media. Especially in a potentially incendiary situation like a food safety scare, the spokesperson is apt to get “loaded questions.” 
Don’t expose the top executive until it’s safe. While it is tempting to have the top person in your organization step out front in a crisis, Rugo counsels otherwise for most situations. She says it’s better if the top person waits until there is “good news” to deliver later in the crisis (“we’ve traced the problem,” “here is what we’re doing to make sure nothing like this happens again,” etc.)


High-Tech Documentation

At Sodexho Marriott Services, some leading-edge technology is being employed to audit compliance with food safety procedures across the company’s thousands of managed units. The company’s loss prevention managers use hand-held computers developed by mobile computing software vendor Steton Technology Group to gather data during the audit process. The data is then downloaded to a central clearinghouse where it can later be analyzed.
“The reports allow us to analyze trends and identify best practices and failure points,” says Jim Doherty, national director of quality assurance and regulatory compliance. “It helps us address areas of concern quickly.”
For the field auditors it means less time spent on paperwork and more time counseling food service units on how to improve quality and safety and ensure that units comply with the standards mandated by the company. And in case of an alleged incident in which a Sodexho Marriott operation’s offerings might be called into question, the company has a verified audit trail it can produce to confirm that its procedures were followed. 
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