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Dec 9, 2008 04:26 PM

What do you do when the restaurant makes you sick?

I was having lunch at a restaurant and had the feeling that there was something slightly ‘off’ about one particular dish. It wasn’t anything so specific as to raise a complaint about. Just a feeling, more or less….

Three hours after leaving the restaurant I suddenly experienced an explosion of sickness that was embarrassing---and that put my plans for the remainder of the evening….on hold.

This is a highly-regarded fine dining establishment, one that I’ve visited many times without incident. I wasn’t going to say anything to the restaurant, but my friend said they should know about what happened.

So, after I had recovered and thought about it, I sent a gentle note to the owner just to make her aware. Her reply: silence.

On one hand, I can understand her lack of response. Almost any acknowledgement could be seen as an admission of fault on her part---and in her position she probably wouldn’t know if it was her food that made me sick or something else entirely. On the other hand, I could almost be offended by the lack of response, if I wanted to be.

I didn’t eat or drink anything before or after my lunch and I’m as certain as I can be about what caused the illness.

Oh, well. I guess things like this just happen from time to time….

Your thoughts?

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  1. A lot of people are SURE they've gotten food poisoning after an experience like this. The problem is, there are many, many varieties of the 24-hour flu that manifest exactly this way, I promise you. Just like this. They mimic the symptoms of food poisoning exactly. The only way you can definitely determine if you had something bad from the restaurant instead of a sudden, violent onset of flu, which again, does happen all the time, is a) you went with, or know several other people who ate there the same day and time, got the same thing and were also sick (this happened at a wedding rehearsal once, for example, and yet the owners still insisted nothing was wrong even though their bathrooms and bushes were filled with guests expelling the food from one end or another) and b) to have your "sample" verified to have an offending bacteria. With most true cases of food poisoning, by the time the person feels like they can actually get away from the house long enough to deliver such a sample, let alone researching whom in your area (your doctor? the health department?) should get it, it will have passed through and verifying the case is just impossible.

    What I would do is to call and let them know about your experience and ASK if anyone else got sick that they know of. They will probably always tell you no, even if they know of other people who did, because they're trying to avoid a liability problem, but if alerted to the possibility of a problem, particularly with a certain dish, they can then take steps immediately to address it - throw out the offending item, discuss with the offending cook, etc.

    I'm sure restaurants are in a very tricky place when they get a call like this. If the call is legitimate, they could be in very big trouble and saying or doing the wrong thing could literally shut them down for good. And if the complaint isn't their fault, the customer could STILL sue them and shut them down, even if they actually didn't do anything wrong. I think restaurant owner should take a crisis communications class or employ a consultant who can advise them what the safe thing is to say when taking a call like this. Silence isn't right, but an automatic apology is an admission of fault (kind of like if you get into a fender bender, if you say "i'm sorry," you have admitted fault to the other person and that can be used in court, but if you say, "well, this is just terrible, isn't it?" or "Jeez, what a thing to happen on a terrible weather day like today," that's at least acknowledging that something unpleasant has happened without taking blame. I don't think it would be an awful thing to actually have a card posted above the phone with the particular language a lawyer or consultant would suggest they could use when getting a call like this. I don't presume to know what that would be, but perhaps something like, "It's too bad you are feeling ill, that's terrible. We have/have not gotten similar complaints today. We will do an audit of the kitchen and the items that you ate immediately. Can I have your name and phone number?" Or something like that.

    1. I have to second rockandroller's response. It is virtually impossible to say it was the lunch you had. Food poisoning can take as much as a couple days to rear its very ugly head. Very sorry that you were ill.

      1. I dunno, I was always told that many so called "flu bugs" were actually food borne illnesses in disguise; i.e. that very few stomach flu's were actually that, flu. I was also under the impression that food-borne illnesses rear their ugly heads 2-4 hours after you ingest them.

        4 Replies
        1. re: im_nomad

          Check out this article on WebMD which indicates certain types of food poisoning can start as long as 4 DAYS after ingesting the contaminated food:

          1. re: im_nomad

            You're correct, most of the time when people think they have the flu (throwing up, diarrhea, etc) and it passes quickly, they don't actually have influenza, but rather some other type of viral infection.

            However, most food-borne illnesses take 8+ hours to affect their hosts. Very few will hit you quickly. If you get sick shortly after eating a meal, something in it most likely didn't sit well with your digestive system.

            1. re: pollymerase

              Wow! Never thought my background in bacteriology would help out in a CHOW posting, but here's a brief run down:

              The most common forms of food poisioning begin showing symptoms within 2-6 hours of ingestion. Typically, the milder the case, the LATER the symptoms show up - so if you have a very severe case (largest "amount" of bacteria ingested, or more severe form) you could have symptoms very soon after eating. Also, in severe cases, some people even recall feeling "off" or uncomfortable as they are eating - as the OP seems to indicate - only to get violently ill a few hours later. And the CDC notes (as pollymerase does) that many people who believe they have a "24-hour flu" or bug actually have a foodborne illness - up to 76 million cases in the US per year.

              And then my own experience - a few years ago a few friends and I ate dinner at a local establishment, and then moved to the bar next door. I was on my first beer when I suddenly felt ill and had to stop drinking. One friend - with whom I'd shared a salad - said she was feeling the same way. And within 30 minutes, as I was leaving, a third friend, who'd also had some salad, was starting to feel ill. The next morning, we discovered we'd all spent the nights in the bathrooms. I contacted the restaurant manager the following afternoon and explained what happened, telling him first that I wasn't interested in any compensation or anything - just wanted to let him know. He was really gracious, and later that afternoon he called to say they'd gotten rid of all the spinach, as they felt that was the culprit (I'm not so sure...thought it seemed more like campylobacter from raw chicken, but it was a nice gesture).

              1. re: RosemaryHoney

                Thank you, Rosemary. It was the salad that got me, as well.....

          2. I'm far from an expert, but my understanding is opposite to r&r1's description of the '24 hour flu'. I was made to beleive that there is no such thing as a 24 hour flu (flu being influenza).
            People call it that because, yes, the symptoms are somewhat similar to flu, but clear up after a short time. Its actually a food borne illness like poisoning or other gastro related problem, sometimes light, sometimes severe.

            Me? I think you were poisoned.
            Its happened to me a few times, mostly mild cases with diarhea and sweats, but once with violent results, and another where I thought I was gonna die.
            Like you (and with hindsight) something seemed just a bit 'off'. Not so much that it raised alarms, but just a subtle 'something' (I've since come to better trust my first instincts).

            So what about the restaurant?
            I think most places will fall into two categories - a high end place sanitation wise, (it could be a hole in the wall or a 3 star joint) or somewhere that either doesn't try very hard, or isn't educated in safe food handling practices.
            Your complaint (or gentle note) won't make a big difference in either of these places: the high end place is doing its best and may never know where the problem occured. The low end place won't care.

            I've had to field calls like this in my day. The customer always knew EXACTLY what caused the problem. I was always unhappy to hear of the distress, but there wasn't a whole lot I could do.
            If I told them that other people ate the scampi (or salad or soup or whatever) at the same time with no problems, it was demeaning, as if I wasn't beleiving them.
            If I agreed with their problem, it was if I should have known prior and avoided it all together (I was never worried about being sued or shut down).
            A lack of response could be due to the reasons you listed, but a human aspect also comes up - its dificult to talk to someone who thinks you hurt them.

            I would thank the patron (like you, they are usually trying to help), express my sympathy for them getting sick, and explain that we are constantly striving for the very best in food handling practices. This is usually satisfactory. If it isn't, I'd honestly explain that I don't know why they got sick, and that I'd discuss the matter with all kitchen personnel.

            I'd also agree with your statement that it does happen from time to time. I've eaten at a couple of chain restaurants where it happened more than that - I simply don't eat there anymore.

            1. It's nearly impossible to prove that a particular restaurant made you sick if all you have is your own illness. Sometimes food poisoning manifests itself almost instantly, but sometimes an infection can incubate in your gut for several days before you have any symptoms. Who knows, the "slightly 'off'" sensation you had at lunch may have been the first stirrings of food poisoning you got from a meal you ate two days before.

              To really establish cause and effect you need epidemiology. If other people at your table ate the same stuff and also got sick, that's a good indication that the meal caused the illness. Especially if the folks who avoided the suspect food are fine. So let the restaurant know that you got sick, but don't blame them for it; if they get several reports they should notify the public health officials. If you're worried that they won't report, notify the local health folks yourself, but be prepared to talk about a lot more than the last meal you ate before you got sick.

              Regardless of whether you can identify the source of your illness, you have my sympathy. It's no fun. Hope you feel better soon.