(This article by Harlan Stueven, M.D., was published Sept. 2, 2014, in Food Safety Magazine and is reposted here with permission.) The world seemed shocked that the Noma Restaurant of Copenhagen would be implicated as a source of food poisoning. The restaurant had been awarded high ranks by Michelin. Some call it the “World’s Finest Restaurant.” But, in fact, the Danish Food Ministry criticized the restaurant for not alerting the health department fast enough when it allegedly caused 60-plus people to get sick this past year. While it is shocking when a Michelin 2 star restaurant is the source of a food poisoning event, no restaurant is without risk. Every restaurant has a food supply chain with potential areas of food safety risk. Every restaurant has employees who are minimally trained in food safety or may not be conscientious enough in the application of procedure. Any broken link in the food safety chain can cause an epidemic. So catching a single event and addressing the root cause before it becomes an epidemic can be challenging. What does a foodborne illness event cost a restaurant? Financially, it can be huge! In the 1993 Jack in the Box food poisoning epidemic, insurers paid out more than $98 million, with the largest settlement of $15.6 million. While this is not the average, it shows how devastating the loss can be. It is not uncommon that the “injured” seek damages of $25,000 to $75,000 per person. Many events will have multiple persons involved. The cost to a restaurant’s reputation can likewise be devastating. So it is no surprise that the threat of a foodborne illness event or epidemic can be paralyzing. What is broken in the chain that allows a suspected foodborne illness event to be neglected and become an epidemic? A restaurant patron may think they got sick from eating at a restaurant. Whom to tell? They might call the restaurant but may not be able to connect with a manager in a timely way. Calling the health department entangles them in interdepartment transfers. Even healthcare providers find the telephone maze difficult. Share a concern on a blog or rating system and the information may not be acted upon. There needs to be a better timely universal reporting system. If the root cause of a single event is not addressed, the event has the potential to become an epidemic. And an epidemic can be catastrophic. When events are reported in a timely way, restaurant management can act on the information, address the potential cause and avert others from becoming sick. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports innovative surveillance efforts and offers an opinion in a May 2014 report, “Health departments might consider additional surveillance methods to capture illness reports from those more likely to post a restaurant review online than to contact a health department.” Until now, no convenient, universal reporting system for reporting foodborne illness events has been widely available. Each state has a unique system and each restaurant manager has a unique system for capturing the data. In a press release on June 26, 2014, DiningGrades.com announced it has developed an innovative universal solution that solves a need for consistent and timely reporting of a suspected restaurant foodborne illness event. It is free to the restaurant patron, easy and intuitive. The system takes the burden off the restaurant management for data collection and facilitates timely reporting to the health department. After selecting the restaurant, the user answers a limited number of questions about the event.

  • Details are documented when they are fresh in the mind of the patron.
  • Contact information, for corroboration by experts, is added.
  • Staff reviews the report.
  • The report can be confidentially sent to the respective restaurant management team and the respective state or community health department.

This process gives the restaurant patron an innovative, easy method to report a suspected event to restaurant management and the respective health department. The system is simple. That critical timely information enhances the ability of management to address a problem before it becomes an epidemic.

  • JTAK Food Safety

    While I don’t disagree with the premise of this article, the one thing that has always stuck out to me is “A restaurant patron may think they got sick from eating at a restaurant.” I recently read about Chicago using social media to identify possible foodborne illnesses (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6332a1.htm). Anybody who has read some of the comments on social media sites has come across those that are simply vitriolic in nature. If you haven’t, then I invite you to review Craigslist Rants and Raves in your local area. In my personal experience as a food inspector, I received numerous complaints where the person calling was absolutely convinced it was the last place they ate at, no matter what the evidence may lead to. In a number of cases of complaint follow up, we would learn that a customer service complaint was truly the reason for the complaint to the health department. In no way am I discounting or disparaging consumer reporting. In our litigious society, often the first questions asked are “Who can I sue?” and “How much can I sue for?” Increasing knowledge of both the public and the business owners should always be the true goal, in my opinion. My business focus is to teach food establishments to protect their businesses by understanding and meeting the requirements of food safety regulation and even going beyond to implement even more stringent sanitation requirements. By protecting their business, they are, in essence, protecting themselves. I also offer food safety presentations to the community, in the attempt to better educate consumers. We all share responsibility for our own health. As a consumer, I would expect a food establishment to serve safe food for my meal. I would have a personal expectation that I was safely handling food in my own home.