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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.

              1. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

                1 Reply
                1. re: ipsedixit

                  Thank you all for your interestnig comments. I can't prove it, but I'm more convinced than ever that it was that dish---and a specific ingredient on the dish---that made me sick. I go back to that intuitive feeling that something just wasn't right about it at the time....

                  I'd almost be willing to bet money that the restaurant received complaints from other customers who ate the same thing I ate that day. If they did not get any other complaints they could have responded to me with that.

                  I will eventually go back to the restaurant that served the poisoned food because I like the place so much. (ha) I do think that most of the time they do the best they can. But I will never again order that one item from their menu.....

                2. You could (should?) report it to the local department of Public Health.

                  1. It has happened to me from time to time but I haven't done anything except for once because I was 100% sure that it came from the pie as we went through some "tests." I ended up reporting it to the Department of Health and called up the bakery. When I told the guy at the bakery, his response was, "Oh no. Oh no. I'm sorry. It was on Wednesday? I knew it ..." Kind of instills confidence in the place -- no? And then reading the DOH reports, I realized that this one place had really bad infractions, especially since it's part of a larger food court where the other establishments had relatively good scores. And there's another location of that bakery where the reports are fine. So it was this one particular location that was really mismanaged. I'm never going there again.

                    There was another time where I did consider calling the restaurant because I was 99% sure our food poisoning came from a bad head-on shrimp (thoroughly mushy). I was lucky as I only ate the head and just suffered some mild diarrhea. But poor DH really got violently ill as he ate the body. But I didn't do anything because all of the other shrimps were fine, and it was probably just one bad shrimp to slipped through.

                    Hope you're feeling better now.

                    1. But aren't there times when you know that the reaction is due to certain dishes/food and the reaction can occur soon after ingestion?

                      Example #1: Escolar. Not to sound crass, but if you are shitting orange soon after eating a white fish, it is safe to assume that it was probably escolar and that fish made you sick. After this happened to a member of my family, the restaurant (small, higher end) apologized profusely and gave a gift cert.

                      Example #2: Allergy/intolerance. Correct me if I am wrong, but if a person is allergic to or has an intolerance of one of the ingredients wouldn't the reaction also occur soon after ingestion? When this happened with a coworker the restaurant (small, local chain) gave her a list of the ingredients, and again apologized profusely. Happened to my mother at a large, local chain and not only would the manager not give her a list of the ingredients, didn't apologize. I ended up sending an (somewhat angry) email and got an apologetic response.

                      Example #3: Safety mechanism/reaction (don't really know what else to call it). Can the body recognize that the food if "off" and before it does any real harm expel it? So it might appear like food poisoning (vomiting,etc.), but it's not food poisoning because the food hasn't actually "poisoned" (does that make any sense)?

                      But what ever the case, and for what ever reason you contact the restaurant, the polite thing would be for them to respond in a timely manner. And next time you eat there you could gently remind them of your letter.

                      1. I think you've got her lack of response figured out, especially in this litiginous society. IMO, you were very thoughtful to contact her directly, and I presume you did this out of respect for the establishment's stature and your previous happy experiences there. Any serious proprietor of an earnest restaurant will want to have the opportunity to resolve problems in their operations (especially spoiled food!).

                        If it were a restaurant that I didn't know well, I wouldn't contact the owner. I'm not sure *what* I would have done, were I in your shoes, given that you were a repeat patron. I agree with those here who point out that we can't always be sure of the source of our illness. Just because something tastes or smells "off" doesn't mean it will make us sick.

                        OTOH, and the thing more of us need to understand, and really accept, is that just because something tastes and smells fine doesn't mean it won't. So, it's important to be as mindful as we can of safe food practices whether we're preparing it ourselves or dining out and depending on others to be vigilant in our behalf. What we can see in a restaurant is often limited, but there are some things we can always look for. Is food served at its proper temperature--raw shellfish served on ice; dairy and poultry served appropriately hot or cold, depending on the dish, etc.? Servers trained never to handle drinking glasses by their rims? Sneezing and coughing employees removed from service, etc., and general cleanliness? If I saw infractions of some of those guidelines and got sick (or, even if I didn't), then I'd probably be more apt to call the health inspector.

                        In all my years of eating out, which I used to do virtually everyday, due to my former career and lifestyle, I don't recall ever a incident in which I think restaurant food made me ill, even overseas. OTOH, I have two people in my family who had "food poisoning" that the ER medical personnel, for whatever reason, linked directly to specific meals eaten in restaurants. While, again, I agree that we can't usually be sure where we picked something up, and I thought it generally took longer than three hours for the nasties to incubate, I'm very sorry to hear you became so ill. I hope you're feeling fine now with no lasting repercussions.

                        1 Reply
                        1. i once drastically poisoned myself eating raw cheese that was just too far gone (out of my own fridge.) a friend nearly died from e.coli from making hamburgers at his own barbecue party. he was in the hospital 3 weeks and has a permanently damaged immune system. both he and i have eaten all over the world and in some very dodgy places, yet have nobody else but ourselves to blame.

                          i've been in the restaurant business nearly 20 years, and have fielded numerous calls from people "positive" they contracted food poisoning. not once have i gotten two calls in the same day -- in other words, there really may have been a problem with the mussels or the chicken. unless you go to a doctor, there is no way to be sure you have food poisoning. i work in fine-dining, and often times people's systems simply can't "handle" all the butter that's actually in their dinners and that makes them feel sick.

                          it's also possible you had a bug and spread it from your fork to your friends, by them sharing your plate.

                          you were right to contact the owner, however, she should have acknowledged your note, even if avoiding a claim of culpability.