5 Tips for Handling a Foodborne Illness Outbreak

A foodborne illness outbreak is not a thing to be taken lightly. In 2015, Chipotle suffered a huge dent in its business when an outbreak that involved several of its restaurants in 14 different states erupted into a major scandal that negatively affected the fast-casual chain’s reputation and bottom line.

While your restaurant business may not have to deal with an issue at such a large scale, a foodborne illness outbreak is still one of the few things restaurant owners hope to never have to deal with. Still, it is always better to be prepared so that you can execute the proper crisis management measures and get back on your feet once the problem has been resolved.

What is a Foodborne Illness Outbreak?

An outbreak may be apparent or confirmed. According to the 2013 FDA Food Code, an apparent foodborne illness outbreak happens when two or more people are suffering from a similar illness after eating related food at your restaurant. Of course, having two people with the same health problems is not hard evidence of an outbreak, but it is reason enough for you to investigate and get to the heart of the matter. If laboratory tests indicate that food that was eaten at your restaurant was the cause of an illness, consider it a confirmed foodborne illness outbreak. In this case, it is best to report everything to the proper authorities and cooperate.

What Causes a Foodborne Illness Outbreak?

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Outbreaks are generally caused by improper food safety measures. There are several things you need to do to ensure that the food that gets served to your customers are free from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that can causes illnesses.

For instance, not cooking and storing food at safe temperatures can cause the rise of harmful microorganisms in the food. Using contaminated equipment, buying ingredients from unsafe sources, and improper employee hygiene can also lead to outbreaks. Chipotle’s food safety woes arose from two cases of employees infected with norovirus who still went to work while they were sick.

What Types of Illnesses are Caused by Foodborne Pathogens?

People can experience several illnesses from eating contaminated food. However, experts usually list five pathogens that frequently appear in foodborne illness outbreaks. These pathogens and their symptoms are listed below:

  • Salmonella – diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever
  • Shigella – diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, mucus, pus in stool
  • coli – abdominal cramps, vomiting, fever, bloody diarrhea, dehydration
  • Norovirus – abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Hepatitis A – fever, fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice, diarrhea, nausea

What are Some Tips for Dealing with a Foodborne Illness Outbreak?

1. Gather information.

If a customer calls to complain about an illness that they suffered from eating at your restaurant, stay calm. Do not act rude or defensive. Instead, be willing to empathize and tell them you understand that they are upset. However, for you to be able to resolve the issue, tell them you need to know all the facts and ask them questions. This shows customers that you can handle problems professionally and take their issues seriously.

It’s best to have a Food Safety Complaint Form nearby. This outlines all the information you need to gather and provides an easy way to note down all the facts. Ask for the customer’s name and contact information, the time and date they ate at the restaurant, what they ate, what others at the table ate, and their symptoms. If they have received treatment from a doctor, note that down as well. Ask if they had any leftovers or if they had consumed other food or beverages after they ate at your restaurant. Do note down the caller’s attitude and actions they plan on taking. If they are being rude, include it in the form but do not return the attitude.

Finally, let the customer know that you will look deeper into the matter. Give them a definite date range during which they can expect your return call. They will want to know what you plan to do and, if applicable, how you plan to make it up to them.  

2. Check your kitchen.

Inform your staff about the call and ask them to help with the investigation. Go over pertinent information, such as sick employee logs and temperature logs, to see if anything comes up that may indicate the possibility of food contamination.

Have the chef inspect all ingredients used for the meal in question and collect samples that are labeled and frozen, which will be useful for laboratory examination. If you need to adjust your handling procedures to avoid tainting the samples, do so. Keep them stored safely in a separate section of your freezer to prevent them from possibly contaminating other items. It is important not to throw out any food or equipment at this point. Keeping them around will help food authorities conduct a more thorough and complete investigation of the issue.  

3. Notify authorities.

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It also crucial that you contact the health department and send them a detailed report of the issue and the procedures you have undertaken so far. If an outbreak has occurred, it is better that the authorities heard it from you than from the customer. Or worse, from social media. This way, investigators won’t come to your restaurant looking to pin you down for a crime but to help you resolve an issue. Proactively notifying the authorities is also a great way to manage public relations. It shows customers that you are willing to work with the right persons to ensure that the food you serve is safe for consumption.  

Let all the stakeholders know as well. Get in touch with the restaurant’s upper management, including dining directors, administrative directors, managers, supervisors, and owners and let them know. It’s best for them to take care of any legal and insurance-related matters that may arise from an outbreak early on.

It is also at this stage that you should make that return call to the customers that sent a complaint. If the foodborne illness has been confirmed by lab tests, it is best to let an attorney initiate the communications as you could be accused of tampering with the witness.

4. Educate and re-educate your staff.

Having highly trained staff is essential in handling a foodborne illness outbreak and preventing one from happening again in the future. Take a look at your current food handling and sanitation measures and find ways to improve. In Chipotle’s case, for example, the outbreak happened because of a lax sick leave policy that caused two employees to go to work even when they were infected with norovirus. To address this problem, Chipotle has introduced paid sick leaves to encourage workers to stay at home when they are sick.

It is also important to inform your staff about the current outbreak’s developments and educate them on how to answer customer questions regarding food safety.

5. Address the public.

While managing a foodborne illness outbreak is challenging enough on its own, the public’s reaction may be the most difficult aspect to deal with. Take a look at Consumer Reports and keep an eye on social media to gauge how people are reacting to the issue.

From here, form a special team whose specific objective is to handle media inquiries and inform the public of what the restaurant is doing to address the problem and ensure that it doesn’t happen again in the future. It is best to assign at least one top-level management personnel to the team. This lets the public know that you are not taking the issue lightly and that all the biggest stakeholders are deeply involved in the matter.


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