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Food Poisoning in a Restaurant

If you developed a suspected case of food poisoning that could be attributed to the restaurant in which you last dined, how would you handle it?

I'm just curious because how do you know definitively what caused your illness?

I'm also interested to know how restaurants who have been contacted about this sort of thing handled it with the customer.

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  1. I don't think you can ever "know definitively" what caused food poisoning unless they culture the food (or it's one of those things that happens at banquets, where everyone who ate the curried crab or whatever gets sick). Chalk it up to one of those things that happens. And yes, I've had food poisoning, once I am pretty sure from improperly cooked spinach, once from who-knows-what at summer camp. I went back to both the restaurant and the camp. The camp claimed it was the flu. That hit dozens of people. All at once. For about 12 hours. You can't win :)

    1. When we investigate a reported illness, several things go on. 1) a food history for the last 5 days - if you got sick today - it probably was not the restaurant you ate at today unless its a viral thing or a staph toxin. Each illness has its own time frame and some can take at least 3 days to manifest. 2) we only investigate if there is more than one person sick - too many people out to make a quick buck. 3) We usually require stool samples so we know which organism we are dealing with. You should get checked by a MD if you are really sick because some things can kill you. 4) after all that we go to the restaurant and try to figure out the source and many times it isn't what you think - the bus boy who was handling the rolls - the salad that was washed with the chicken etc etc... Really easy when there are many people sick, hard when it is one.

      1. There was one time where I definitely knew that something caused food poisoning. Purchased a mini pie at a bakery one day. I had none and DH ate half of it. DH had very bad diarrhea later. The next day, I had literally two bites (and nothing else), and I had diarrhea. DH ate a few more bites and had diarrhea. The following day (if two days of diarrhea weren't enough), in order to make sure it was from the pie, he took a couple of more bites and got diarrhea. So we were pretty sure what caused it.

        I called the Department of Health and lodged a complaint and called the bakery. The bakery wasn't angry or surprised with my call and didn't refute my complaints, which I found odd because it really is difficult to pinpoint it to the establishment. I was expecting them to say something like, "How do you know it wasn't something else?" It was like they knew they did something wrong and were expecting our call. They said, "Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. I'm sorry." And then I heard the guy on the phone say to somebody else, "Was ______ working on Wednesday? (sigh)" Oddly enough, this bakery was part of a larger food court. When I checked the Department of health ratings at the other food establishments, the numbers were relatively low and very few incidences of vermin (in spite of the location). The numbers for this place were off the scale.

        1. Go directly to a doctor so that s(he) can determine if it actually IS food poisoning. S(he) will probably then tell you to make a list of all foods consumed during the past 3 days. Then go to the board of health and give them the same list along with sources. Food poisoning takes anywhere from 6 hours to 3 days to show symptoms.

          Restaurants are often contacted from customers claiming they got food poisoning but unless they have been to a doctor and had it confirmed, they don't take it very seriously. The calls are often along the lines of, "We ate at your establishment last night and upon getting home, my husband started vomiting profusely". This is not food poisoning.

          Go to the doctor. Do not assume it was the restaurant in which you last dined. It may have been, but it really may not have. The board of health can sort those things out.

          1. Sorry - gross story:

            I got food poisoning on New Years Eve two years ago - we were at a jazz club/restaurant for a night of jazz and multi-course meal from about 5pm. I had not been drinking (I was DD). Around 9pm I got violently ill and we had to leave at about 10 (I once I could make it out of the bathroom). It got worse and worse over the night. I called the nurses line and talked to a nurse who said to go to the hospital. I called the doctor on call from my primary care doctor's office who said to go to the hospital. I did not want to go to the hospital because it was New Year's Eve and I knew there would be a line of idiots with wounds in front of me, and a waiting room full of drunk people...so I stayed home. I basically wanted to die for about three days.

            I blamed the jazz club. I hadn't eaten anything else that day and as I looked on the internet, there are some bugs that take a while to kick in (and everyone is quick to point these out to say that you couldn't have gotten sick at this place because it takes hours or days to get sick with X and you got sick at the restaurant or right after), but others that make you violently ill within a coule of hours. I talked to the manager of the club and he denied it saying there was no one else sick that night (which was not true - there were several other sick people in the ladies room, although who knows if they were sick or had just had too much to drink or if they would chock food poisoning up to having too much to drink. In any event, I got angry and wrote them a letter about how they'd made me sick, etc. and they sent me a gift certificate to come back for another show and dinner. I never used it - I don't think I could bring myself to eat there again due to the painful memories.

            Looking back on it, I should have contacted the health department as well, but as another poster pointed out - if I am the only one who contacts them, they won't even investigate. Plus, since I refused to go to the hospital, there were no cultures, etc.

            1. As someone else pointed out above it is very difficult to know if it was an establishment or caterer that gave you food poisoning because it really needs to be more than one person who gets sick. When someone says they didn't eat anything else that day I would also question the coffee with milk they had earlier that day, the toast and butter, the unwashed apple the half a sandwich they forgot they had at lunch etc. Or it could have been something the day before. Or it could be a stomach virus.

              1. Call the health department, tell them what you ate and have them do an inspection. Also call the owner, GM and tell them so onone else gets sick. Hope you feel better.

                1. This is VERY GROSS AND GRAPHIC, look away if you have weak constitution.

                  I went out for oysters and raw bar one night with hubby, and became violently ill soon afterwards, I knew from earlier training in nursing school to get a "specimen" so I grabbed a ziplock bag, and you guessed it... brought them a sample of my stomach contents.

                  sure enough, food poisoning from bad oysters/clams raw bar.

                  When I called the restaurant to inform them, they said I must be mistaken. I then informed them I had my stomach contents as proof, Needless to say the ER bill was paid before I was ever sent one.

                  1. If you report it to the resto mgmt. they take your info and then if they have other cases reported, they then know there is a link. Most reputable places handle it responsibly - after all, that is why they carry liability insurance. Typically, if they suspect they are the cause they will notify their insurance carrier who will then contact those that reported being ill.

                    If you're certain the resto was to blame, call them and ask for their insurance carrier information.

                    1. I've had it twice and in neither case reported it, let alone called the restaurant. It's been years since, but if it happened today, I'd probably call the health dept and report it as a "bare fact" on the theory that complaints don't become "multiple" unless they're reported. They could get back to me if the complaints piled up and they wanted more info. But unless there were some known risk of serious public health threat (like killer E coli, etc) floating around already, I wouldn't bother myself with extra exams or long interviews/questionnaires, my sense of civic duty isn't *that* strong. On the other hand, unless I got something unusual that somehow caused truly serious or permanent injury, or I had reason to think it was the result of flagrant negligence, I also couldn't be bothered seeking redress - like it or now, stuff happens. If I thought the establishment wouldn't go all wiggy on me, I might mention it to them so they could check into possible reasons, but most likely would just avoid the place in the future. On the basic assumption that no "good deed" goes unpunished... (chuckle, sigh)

                      1. jfood has unfortunately had a couple of cases of "food poisoning" over the years. Twice it preceeded a 6-hour flight and he will not get graphic but each of those 6-hour flights were the longest 40 hours of his life.

                        He contacted the restaurants and let them know, each told them that no one else suffered from the raw seafood and jfood moved on. Sorta a public service announcement. Not expecting anything, but just giving a data point to the restaurant.

                        1. I have gotten food poisoning twice. One of the times was severe and the other mildly annoying. I contacted the restaurant when I had a mild case, and it didn't go very well. We were one of the last customers of the night, and I called the restaurant before opening the next morning. I told the manager on duty that the three of us were sick, and it was the only meal we had in common for the previous three days. I told him what we each ate, and this was just a courtesy phone call, in other words I wasn't looking for any kind of compensation. He told me that he found this very hard to believe, and we should have kept part of the sandwich so testing could be done to determine the cause. FYI, I guess we should all keep a little part of our meals because you never know when you are going to come down w/ food poisoning...removing tongue from cheek now. Anyway, despite telling him repeatedly we weren't looking for a handout, and him getting combative over the phone, he took my name and number so the owner could get in touch w/me. Surprise, surprise the owner never called.

                          I never called the second place, and I probably should have.

                          1. as a former restaurant owner, we never had anyone call us about getting food poisoning. but we did once have the health inspector come out because someone said they had food poisoning. it was very hard to believe but he took samples of everything they could have possibly ate there. which isn't hard to do since we have a very limited menu. but he said that it was more than likely it wasn't the truth since it was a very isolated incident in our restaurant that churns out probably about 200 or so of the exact same meals every day and no one else has said anything but them. funny enough, they only went to the health inspector but did not go to the hospital.

                            1. One story to add, a friend ate at a restaurant with a large group, but ate something totally different because they were on a diet. They didn't finish the dish and became ill the next day, called me and asked about it. As a favor I took the food, not expecting to find anything and did a check on the last inspections. Sadly, the food failed multiple bacteria tests and the reports showed that the restaurant had failed miserably with storage temperatures and hand washing (they blocked the hand washing sinks). The call to restaurant got them the same story - no one else has ever become sick and it couldn't be them and a very belligerent manager. In this case they weren't looking for any thing initially, but the attitude got them upset. I asked for another inspection and, the same problems that showed on the initial inspection a week before my friend went showed up again. The restaurant was "closed for renovations' until the problems were fixed, my friend got a call from the owner and a check to cover the hospital visit and two days off work. This was an unusual situation and a 'perfect storm' for the restaurant.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: PaulaT

                                PaulaT: Are you a bacteria snark? I have wanted to know someone like this for a long time. I went to a restaurant in Stamford and the next day had I rash from head to toe, I think it is called tomaine posioning but the weird thing about it I had been to this place many times and never got sick but that night I was waiting on line for the ladies room and the kitchen door was wide open and to my dismay all the big cans of whatever were opened and the metal was totally exposed and not refeigerated, do you think that this is a possibity to the total rash I got? I didn't call the health department and I should have but I just will Never go back there again. Thanks

                                1. re: nbermas

                                  You had an allergic reaction. The word ptomaine is no longer in use to describe food poisoning, which is an intestinal illness and would have symptoms much different than your case of hives.

                                  1. re: nbermas

                                    nbermas - allergic reaction yes, food borne maybe.
                                    - one of the things that can causes problems and usually has nothing to do with the restaurant itself is Scombroid poisoning and is caused by improper handling of fish again usually at sea. The fish doesn't smell bad, but has a high level of histamine and can cause that kind of a reaction.
                                    To the first question - I have FDA certs and have worked with the CDC

                                    1. re: nbermas

                                      What do you mean by "the metal was totally exposed and not refrigerated?"

                                      1. re: jlbwendt

                                        Open big cans of things like guava jam, I saw lots of others open but I always have there pastry with guava jam so that is the only one I looked a with amazement. It was as if I opened a can of Heinz baked beans and left them open in a room unrerigerated. it was gross. So I feel bad I never called the restaurant but it isn't my top 10 clean restaurants around. Thanks

                                  2. I am glad to hear that many of the posters seem to know that it is difficult to pin down whee they got food poisoning. Having worked in food service for years, I can say that it is nearly impossible to attribute food poisoning to a source when there is only one incident of reaction.

                                    However, we have a process when an incident is reported. A report is filed with our insurance company, who will contact the complainant. All of the safety checklists from the day in question are reviewed, copied, and sent to the insurance company and a health inspector if needed. In almost nine years of operation, we have never been found at fault. As for how we deal with the customer: we say "I'm sorry that you are ill. We are investigating the issue."

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: miss_bennet

                                      Sure it's difficult to pin down exactly, but there are certainly situations where it's more likely caused by a particular meal. In my case, I had not eaten anything that day at all (slept in, ran errands, etc.) and the previous two days I had eaten exactly the same meals as my boyfriend (who was with me when I got sick but did not get sick himself - and that was the first time in two days we had eaten different things). So the chances of it not being the meal at the jazz club/restaurant were pretty small (even my doctor agreed).

                                      It's too bad that restaurants are so quick to point out that it *might* not have been their food that caused the sickness. Often the diner is left feeling dismissed by the restaurant and/or health department, and that's too bad. Chances are if the diner thinks s/he was sicked by a particular restaurant, s/he won't go back and will tell everyone s/he knows about the incident *unless* s/he feels like the restaurant has dealt with the problem. If the restaurant just dismisses the complaint (and even though what you said above may sound reasonable to you, it does not sound reasonable to someone who missed work for unimaginably disgusting and scary days and blames your restaurant), you are just asking for that customer to tell everyone they know that the restaurant poisioned them, that the restaurant doesn't care, and that the restaurant hasn't made any corrections because it denies it has a problem.