Trading Standards Institute Advice

Dealing with alleged food poisoning

This leaflet is for all food businesses including those involved in food preparation and production, retail premises, catering, restaurants, pubs, cafes, takeaway and fast-food shops or businesses working from home.

What is alleged food poisoning?
An allegation of food poisoning means that a customer has claimed that the food your business has prepared and served, has made them ill.

Why does it matter?
Reputation is critical to a food business and the slightest hint that you have produced unsafe food can have severe consequences.

Apart from the fact that you as the 'business owner' can be prosecuted for providing unfit food, no-one wants to be responsible for causing illness, long-term health issues, or death, which could be the consequences of food poisoning and food-related illness. (The business operator is often the business owner).

The problem in identifying food poisoning is that its common symptoms (vomiting and diarrhoea) are the same as those that may be caused by food allergy and intolerance, or viral infections such as the winter vomiting virus.

If one of your customers complains, it is important to everyone involved to find out whether their complaint is justified. If it is, work out the cause and reasons of the illness and then make sure that something similar will not happen again.

There are two circumstances that you need to consider if someone makes an allegation of food poisoning

1. A customer or consumer is contacting you because they think you have caused them a problem
A senior member of staff or the business operator owner should deal with any allegations. You will need to gather as much information as you can. Take their full contact details and then try to find out the following:

  • what food they ate
  • when they ate the food
  • what their symptoms are or were, and how long these symptoms took to develop
  • how long the illness lasted
  • whether they have seen a doctor - if they have not, ask them to do so - the doctor may ask for a sample of faeces (stool sample) which, when analysed, will identify the organism involved
  • whether they have told the local environmental health officer - if they haven't, this may be something you ought to do yourself

2. An environmental health officer contacts you
When a person goes to the doctor with food poisoning, and this is confirmed, the doctor gives details to the local environmental health officer (EHO). The officer will contact that person to try to find out where and what they ate, and to try to find out the cause of their illness. This will then lead them to the business which produced or served that food. The environmental health team will contact the business and investigate the claims.

If an environmental health officer visits you under these circumstances it is important to help them as much as possible. Remember that your business may not be at fault, the food could have been unsafe when it came to you or it could be food they have eaten in another establishment or in their own home that caused the problem.

Collect as much information as you can and have it available for the officer. Take the following steps:

  • stop serving the food that may have caused the problem - if any is left, keep it separate from other food and clearly mark that it is not to be used
  • do not throw the food away - keep it for inspection and if necessary laboratory analysis

Collect information about the following: 

  • which food may be responsible for the illness - the EHO will have given you this information when they contacted you
  • when the food was delivered and whether it was in good condition at that point
  • whether the food was stored correctly
  • when the food was prepared and served
  • which food handlers worked with the food, and whether any of them are off work ill
  • which processes or equipment were used
  • how many people may have eaten the food
  • whether there are samples or leftovers which could be analysed
  • details of your food safety management system, including monitoring records - where all the controls in place and being monitored by management
  • whether there is anything else that may have contributed to the problem

What steps the environmental health officer can take
Always co-operate with the officer and help with the investigation as much as you can. Remember that although you served the food, the incident may not be your responsibility and the contamination may be traced back to a supplier or producer.

In serious cases the environmental health officer may say you will have to close your business and stop trading.

The officer may issue an Emergency Prohibition Notice or may ask you to close voluntarily. It may be better for you to close voluntarily as this avoids a closure notice from being displayed on the front entrance of your premises - alerting all your customers to the problem. It also means that there will be no record of a formal closure notice on your business records.

Once your business is closed, you are not allowed to open and trade as normal until the environmental health officer gives you permission to do so. The officer may also want to take food from your premises, usually samples but sometimes larger quantities, depending on the circumstances. The law allows this.

Work with the EHO
Let the environmental health officer guide, advise and help you through the process. They will tell you when you are allowed to clean the suspected areas and equipment, restock food items and open for business again. Act on any advice that the EHO gives to avoid a similar incident in the future.

You may find that the environmental health team will visit you often until they are satisfied that you have dealt with any problems with your systems that may have caused the food poisoning.

It is important to get a report of the incident from the investigating officer so that you know the results of the investigation.

You must deal with any failures in your food safety management system, even if the point of the contamination was not your fault. For example, the food was already contaminated when you got it.

From a customer care point of view you may also want to let the person who made the complaint know about the findings of the investigation.

More information
You will find further guidance in our other leaflets on this website. Information can also be found on the Food Standards Agency website.

Alternatively, contact your local environmental health service for advice.

Please note
This leaflet is not an authoritative interpretation of the law and is intended only for guidance.

© 2018 itsa Ltd.