Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Food Smarts: OMG, someone just said "our food made them sick!" For Real..

One of the worst fears we all have in the “food business” is for someone to say our food made them sick. Yikes! What do you do? You being the independent operator who doesn’t have access to the 9-inch thick corporate manual.

Well first, BREATHE, and stay, calm. I believe that though bad people exist, that most people are good. It’s most likely one of your loyal customers is contacting you because they sincerely believe that your food made them sick and they want you to know so you can fix the problem and improve your business.

Yes, scam artists are out there too, and you have to be just as careful with them as well. The scam artists think that if they accuse you of making them sick; you will give them free food or monies to avoid bad publicity. Whichever scenario it is, you have to stay calm and treat them both the same as you address the situation and investigate the claim. How you handle this situation can affect your business in the long run.

Make sure all the phone calls are directed to one person in the restaurant (the best person is the owner) and that no one else is authorized to discuss food-borne illness situations. One voice avoids misinformation and conflicting stories.

We all know that even just a food-borne illness claim can be the end of a business. If I were a restaurant owner and someone calls me to say that my food made them sick; I am not going to deny that my food could have made them sick just because I teach the Food Service Manager Certification courses and I know how to handle food properly.  Nor, am I going to suggest that it was something they ate somewhere else. The most likely result will be a very upset and angry customer. In a round-about-manner, I have just called that person a liar or a dummy. We could change this person from a good intentioned customer to a person seeking retribution in court.

Always give the guest sympathy. “I am so sorry to hear you are sick and hope you feel better soon.” DON’T EVER say, “I am sorry my food made you sick.” You could end up being the principal witness against yourself if the situation does go to court. Not the way to go.

Again, never DENY. All it will do is make someone defensive … and we all know that expression about making people defensive.

I suggest that you create a form to keep close to your office phone … with the following questions to ask first:

  • Name, address, phone number of the person calling and/or the person sick.
  • What did you eat and drink in our restaurant?
  • When were you in our restaurant?
  • Did you eat anything else before or after eating in our restaurant?
  • What did you eat? 
  • When did you eat? 
  • Where did you eat? (I have a client whose customers were certain it was her food that made them sick.  With calm, careful questioning, she was able to confirm these customers had eaten at another restaurant which turned out to be the cause of their foodborne illness.)
  • Always ask them to see a doctor to CONFIRM the illness. (This is a clear deterrent to the fake complaint)
  • Always record the time and date of this conversation and all further ones in a file you will create and keep
  • Be on the lookout for any other calls that will confirm the possibility of a problem
If your establishment is responsible for a food-borne illness or an outbreak you are going to have work with your local health department to confirm you have resolved all issues. This is also the time to provide some extra training to your staff to reinforce proper food handling procedures.

Whether you are guilty or not of causing an illness, the news media can jump all over a foodborne illness story as it does grab the audience’s attention. They can sometimes be in a rush to get a story out and can judge one guilty before all the details are known.  This stigma can be hard to get rid of.  I recommend that this is the time to hire and work with a Public Relations & Marketing firm to help you with crisis management and damage control.

If you are a member of your local restaurant association, it is time to make your dues work for you with a phone for recommendations and advice. If you hire an agency, let them advise you what info to say or what info to not say. You should get them to help you put out your story on your website, Facebook page, Twitter and where ever else you have a social media presence. I also recommend that you call your local health department as they can help you to fix the problems if you are the cause of an illness or an outbreak or to help protect you if you are not.

The last few months we have talked about taking temperatures, HACCP, which includes record keeping. If you do have a food borne illness accusation, your Time & Temperature logs can serve as written proof that you have handled the food properly should you have to go to court.

Juliet Bodinetz-Rich is the executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions and has over 25 years industry and training experience. Her team of instructors’ specialty is food safety, alcohol training and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. Metro Area., or 443-838-7561. For Latest Food Safety Tips: Become a Fan on Facebook or Twitter: @BHTS