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9 Tips for Handling a Food Safety Complaint at Your Restaurant

No matter how many food safety precautions you take at your establishment, you will inevitably get a complaint at some point that a customer ate something at your restaurant that made them sick. These complaints aren’t a hassle, but an opportunity to conduct a review of your food handling procedures and a way to prevent negative reviews of your restaurant, both online and off.

There are two kinds of illness that could be causing a guest distress; foodborne illness and food poisoning. Foodborne illness is when bacteria get into the body and the body tries to purge them; symptoms may not begin until days after the unsafe food is consumed. Food poisoning is caused by bacteria that produce toxins, most commonly staphylococcus bacteria. Food poisoning can begin causing symptoms almost immediately upon the food being consumed, or shortly after the guest leaves.

1. Draw up a complaint procedure and ensure access to it

Every staff member should know exactly what to do in the event of a food safety complaint. Keep a copy your complaint procedure where servers, host staff and managers have access to it at all times. You should also create a complaint form that allows you to gather all relevant information from the client.

2. Direct complaining clients to the “person in charge”

Don’t tell an angry, sick guest that they’ll have to wait until a manager gets back to them. This leaves time for them to post a negative online review. Ensure you always have at least one “person in charge” on staff who can handle a food safety complaint.

3. Empathize without apologizing

While you have to empathize with your complainant, it is important you do not admit liability or take responsibility for their sickness. Realistically, it could have happened with anything they ate in the past couple days. Use language like “I’m sorry you are feeling unwell”, rather than “I’m sorry you got sick here.”

4. Note down all details and give a timeline for getting back to them

Get as many details as you can from the client, including if possible a copy of the check so you can pinpoint food items served, time served and so on. If you can’t get a copy of the check, ask for details like who their server was, what time and day they were there, what the other people at the table had to eat and if they were affected as well (if so, get their information too and contact them) and any other details the client can give you. Tell them that you will investigate and get back to them within a week – this should allow more than enough time to look into the complaint.

5. Tell them to go to the doctor for a diagnosis

The only way that illness or food poisoning can be definitively determined is a doctor’s diagnosis in concert with laboratory testing. As your first concern is for the client’s health, tell them to go to an emergency room if they are experiencing symptoms. If they feel relatively fine, advise them to go to a doctor. This not only helps to discourage false complaints, it isolates the type of bacteria that are causing the issue and allows you to narrow your investigation down further. Note that if bacteria are found which could cause foodborne illness, medical personnel must report it to the local public health unit, who must launch their own investigation at that point.

6. Notify the local public health authority

Food safety complaints are supposed to be handled through your local public health department. Many guests don’t know this and will start the chain of complaint at the restaurant level. It pays to be proactive and contact your local public health authority to inform them of the complaint; you gain a good reputation with the inspectors and get in front of the complaint.

7. Launch a thorough internal investigation

Speak to the complainant’s server, the staff who cooked the food, and examine food safety handling procedures for each item that the complainant consumed. For example, if they had a steak dinner, you would look at food safety procedures for the preparation of not just the steak, but also the sides and anything else they may have eaten. Staff should also be asked if anyone else reported feeling sick, maybe after a staff meal.

Be sure to take careful notes at each step and interview with each staff member – record them if possible and if your employees consent. This will be a huge help if the client chooses to escalate their complaint to either the public health authority or legal channels.

8. If you find nothing

If you don’t find anything that could have caused your guest to be sick, report back to them with full details, and be prepared to answer questions about safe food handling procedures from the guest.

As when you took the complaint, empathize but do not apologize – you have determined that their illness was not the fault of your business. The client may escalate it to the public health authority at this point, and they may conduct an investigation similar to your internal investigation. Do not encourage further similar complaints by offering free gift certificates or other compensation, unless you feel the situation really requires it. If you do give the guest compensation, accompany it with a letter stating that an investigation was done and nothing was found – compensation may be seen as an admission of liability without a letter backing up your position.

9. If you find something

If you find something, it is probably best to bring in the public health authority for a review of your food handling procedures if they aren’t already involved. It may be necessary to retain legal counsel to find out the best way of responding to a food safety complaint where your restaurant has been found responsible due to a lack of food safety.