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Got food poisoning? Think twice before you blame that restaurant

OPINION: Diners often believe they know what’s made them sick. But they’re often wrong — and their accusations can hurt small businesses, writes Corey Mintz by Corey Mintz July 5, 2018

“Happy families are all alike,” wrote Tolstoy. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” To which I can add only that everybody poops. But every unhappy poop is unhappy in its own way. And yet we routinely jump to conclusions about these poops, assuming they’re unhappy for the same reason — food poisoning — and blaming the usual suspects.

It’s understandable that when we’re suffering from such shudder-inducing symptoms as nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, we are beset by fear. We don’t really know what is happening to us or how long it will last. So we turn our outrage into blame. And the target is usually the last place (restaurant, street cart, water park, convention-centre buffet) we ate. But most likely, it was a restaurant.

This is how an acquaintance recently brought up the subject with me.

“Say you got food poisoning from a vegan restaurant,” she began. “Should you tell the restaurant?”

As this is not so rare a question for me, I asked how, given that harmful micro-organisms (including bacteria, viruses, and parasites) can take days to gestate, she had come to the conclusion that this restaurant had been the source of her illness.

Allison Chris, associate medical officer of health with Toronto Public Health, says it’s very difficult for people to make that call on their own.

“After you consume a contaminated food, it may take hours to days — or more — to develop symptoms, depending on the type of germ,” says Chris. “For example, symptoms of campylobacter can take between three to five days after consumption of a contaminated food, while symptoms of norovirus typically take between 12 to 48 hours.”

TPH encourages anyone who suspects they might have experienced food poisoning to contact it immediately. It investigates based on laboratory-confirmed, reportable communicable diseases.

So if you think you’ve contracted food poisoning, go see a doctor and have them take a stool sample. Make a detailed list of everything you’ve eaten in recent days. If you can obtain samples of the food in question, even better.

“Nobody wants to make anybody sick,” says Erin Dunham, CEO of the Other Bird, a hospitality group that includes such Ontario restaurants as Hunter & Co. (London), the Mule (Hamilton), and the Arlington Hotel (Paris).

“So if someone thinks they got food poisoning at our place, it becomes a co-operative effort to make sure this does not happen to anyone else. We’ll ask what they ate. And we’ll try to find somebody else who ate it that night, because if one person gets sick, multiple people would. If you did, we want to know because we want to prevent that. And we always encourage people to go to their doctor and test their stool. If they don’t get tested, it stops there. And there’s nothing anybody can do.”

From my experience working in kitchens, no one likes complaints, but there is an understanding that you cannot please every last customer. The worst thing you can do, however, is make someone sick with your food. Having said that, it’s very hard to determine, without laboratory-confirmed evidence, where food poisoning has originated. And if you’re that sick, you probably don’t want to drag yourself to the doctor.

But the need to find a culprit doesn’t justify shoddy detective work.

“People believe they know what made them sick,” says Dunham. “If they think they had food poisoning, it could have been the baloney sandwich they had at lunch or the poached egg they had at breakfast going back a few days. It’s so hard to know unless you go to the doctor. And it can give some restaurants a really bad reputation. It’s a very difficult thing, and people don’t know enough about it.”

Food poisoning can be horribly unpleasant. And a good restaurant will remain sympathetic when fielding complaints (or even accusations). But diners would do well to read the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s list of food-recall warnings for 2018 and think about what is in their fridge at home before levelling accusations against a restaurant.

Only a few stories about major recalls make the news, but there are dozens of recalls every year. And they don’t just involve the usual suspects, chicken and seafood; there have been recalls on pea shoots with listeria, cardamom pods with salmonella, beer with possible glass shards, and strawberries with hepatitis A.

Please don’t actually read this list. I’m not saying any of this to frighten anyone. But I think if people educated themselves, they’d be less likely to scapegoat a restaurant.

“I hear it often,” says Dunham. “People say, ‘I hate this place because I got food poisoning there.’ I find I’m defending places I’ve never even been to — because the evidence isn’t there to ruin a small business because you think something happened.”