Protecting a Brand’s Food Safety Image: Responding to Alleged Poisonings


It’s going to happen!
Someone you know will get food borne illness from eating at a restaurant this year.

If you are in restaurant management, some of your customers will get food borne illness from eating at your restaurant this year.

  • Accept that it will happen.
  • Be prepared with a response that does not imply guilt.
  • Invite professional investigation.
  • If the allegation and/or violations are found to be accurate, admit it.
  • Compensate consumers for damages fairly.
  • Foster an improved food safety image.

I purposely used the word “poisonings” in the title, as it conjures up the image that it was an active process and not an accident. “Food poisoning” reports are all over the Internet and social media on sites like The idea of poisoned customers damages a brand’s image. The alleged event can tank profit, jobs, and stock value. It can result in the closure of restaurants or even an entire chain. While it is likely inevitable that a restaurant customer may develop a food borne illness, the damage to a brand’s image can be mitigated.

As an emergency physician, medical director, Department Chairman and having served on quality assurance committees I have worked with physicians facing alleged medical malpractice. Those lessons learned can be generically applied to the food industry.

Accept that it will happen. One in six Americans will get food borne illness this year and about half the time it is from restaurants. Those aren’t my statistics and I won’t vouch for them. They are the projected statistics of the Centers for Disease Control. So, if you serve 600 customers in a year, statistically 50 will get sick from eating at your restaurant. They may not know where they caught the “bug” because most people have improperly conceived ideas of pervasiveness of the illness and timing of the onset of symptoms.

Be prepared with a response that does not imply guilt. A recent scam has been uncovered wherein some British tourists are alleging they got sick at restaurants and then demanding compensation.

Never respond as though you are guilty, but don’t be defensive either.

Invite professional investigation. It is tempting to try to hide potentially dirty laundry under the rug, but getting the health department involved in an alleged food borne illness event has benefits. First, it could reduce the possibility of an epidemic by discovering cause earlier. Second, it shifts responsibility of discovery to those with the skills to do so. Third, it shows the customer you will take the allegation seriously.

If the allegation and/or violations are found to be accurate, admit it. Shelly Stegner, Director of Food Safety for Associated Wholesale, suggested at a recent Food Safety Summit, that when confronted with a violation, be truthful and upfront. Don’t falsify documents. Knowledge of and failure to remedy violations can put you at risk.

Compensate consumer for damages fairly. Sometimes an apology and a stated renewed commitment is enough. Frequently, offering a future gift certificate is adequate. In some cases, financial compensation is appropriate but if the damages are significant, consider legal representation before the offer.

Foster an improved food safety image. Whether the allegation was verified or not, there will be damage to the restaurant’s food safety image. Seek out ways to reduce chances of another event and foster a food safety culture. Require everyone to take a food safety course, ensure understanding, and become affiliated with organizations having goals of reducing food borne illness. and can help prevent and recover from a tarnished food safety image.



Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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