Food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness, occurs when a person ingests food that has been contaminated by harmful pathogens or bacteria.
The most common types of food poisoning are:
- Bacterial (examples include Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.coli and Listeria)
- Viral (examples include Norovirus, Rotavirus and Hepatitis A)
- Intoxication from toxins produced by bugs (such as Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus cereus and Clostridium perfringens)
What Causes Food Poisoning?
A number of factors can contribute to food poisoning. These are:
- Not cooking food properly
- Not storing food correctly that needs to be chilled below 5°C
- Poor hygiene when handling food
- Illness in the food handler
- Eating food after its expiry date
- Cross contamination, where bacteria has spread between food, surfaces, utensils and equipment
Here is a list of foods that have a higher risk of harbouring harmful bugs or toxins:
- Meat, especially undercooked red meat
- Raw or undercooked poultry such as chicken, duck and turkey
- Raw or lightly cooked eggs
- Foods made from raw egg such as unpasteurised mayonnaise
- Small goods such as salami and hams
- Fish and seafood
- Cooked rice not kept at correct temperatures
- Cooked pasta not kept at correct temperatures
- Prepared salads such as coleslaw, pasta salads, and rice salads
- Prepared fruit salads
- Unpasteurised dairy products
Please note that foods capable of inflicting food poisoning may not necessarily look, taste or smell different to food that can be safely consumed.
How Can I Prevent Food Poisoning From Occurring?
The best way to manage food poisoning allegations is to prevent them from happening in the first place. You can minimise your chances of serving unsafe food by:
- Hiring a Food Safety Supervisor to implement a Food Safety Program
- Equipping your food staff with the necessary food safety training and qualifications
- Selecting food and equipment suppliers that have undergone audits
- Ensuring that food is cooked, served and stored at the right temperatures
- Keeping records of all measures your food business takes to ensure optimal food safety
- Avoid keeping high-risk foods in the Temperature Danger Zone
- Keep chilled foods cold at 5°C or colder, and hot foods hot at 60°C or hotter
- Refrigerators should be kept below 5°C with adequate air flow around food to ensure even temperature distribution
Handling Raw Foods
- Keep raw foods and cooked foods separate to avoid cross-contamination
- Store raw foods in covered or sealed containers below cooked foods in the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination
- Wash hands immediately after handling raw foods
- Do not wash meat such as raw chicken before cooking
- Thoroughly rinse all fruit and vegetables in clean water to remove soil, bacteria, insects and chemicals before preparation
- Take extra care when preparing foods in which the eggs remain uncooked – such as egg nog and homemade mayonnaise – as bacteria on the egg shells can contaminate the food
- Make sure food is thoroughly cooked and the centre of the cooked food has reached 75°C
- Hot foods should be stored above 60°C (i.e. ‘steaming’ hot)
- Avoid leaving just cooked food out to cool for more than one hour
- As soon as food has cooled, place it in the refrigerator
- Cooked foods that need reheating should be reheated rapidly until all parts of the food reach 75°C
- Keep frozen food out of the Temperature Danger Zone while thawing by keeping it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator
- Use separate, clean utensils for raw foods and ready-to-eat foods, or wash and sanitise before re‐use
- If the same chopping board is used, ensure it is thoroughly cleaned, sanitised and dried before re‐use
- Store food items away from toxic chemicals, insect sprays, and cleaning agents
- Do not use cloth towels which have been used to wipe hands or bench tops for drying dishes
- Cloth towels should be washed and dried regularly
- Regularly wash and replace dishcloths
What Are The Symptoms Of Food Poisoning?
Symptoms of food poisoning or food-borne illness range from mild to very serious. Common symptoms from eating tainted food include:
- Abdominal cramps
A person suffering a food‐borne illness may have one or more of these symptoms.
The incubation period (the time between eating the food and the appearance of the first symptom) may be as short as a few hours or as long as three to four days, although this varies depending on the bacteria, virus or toxin causing the illness. Following the incubation period, the illness could last from one to seven days. Contrary to popular belief, the last meal consumed may not necessarily be the culprit.
Some of your customers may also have allergies and intolerances to specific foods or ingredients. These are not considered food poisoning, although they can be very severe and even life-threatening. To learn more, read the Food Safety Supervisor Guide to Managing Allergy Risks In Customers.
Which Customers Are More At Risk?
Some customers may be more susceptible or affected by symptoms of food poisoning. These include:
- Pregnant women
- People older than 70 years of age with certain underlying conditions
- Children up to five years old
- People with chronic or acute ill health
- People with compromised immune systems
Also be aware that some strands of food poisoning can transfer from person to person or through touching contaminated surfaces. In rare cases, food poisoning can cause severe illness, resulting in long-term health problems or even death.
How Should I Handle A Food Poisoning Complaint?
Step 1. Understand the Complaint Thoroughly
If a customer alleges that they have food poisoning as a result of consuming food from your food business:
- Reassure the customer that your business takes the complaint very seriously
- Record the time and date that the customer delivered the complaint
- Ask the customer for their permission to write down details that will help you thoroughly investigate the incident
If the customer agrees to answer your questions, record the following details:
- The complainant’s name and contact information
- How many people are allegedly ill
- Which foods were eaten and when
- Which foods the customer suspects caused the illness (for each person, if necessary)
- Food poisoning symptoms
- When the symptoms started to occur
- Whether any of the suspected food remains in possession of the complainant (if so, request that they seal it in a hygienic container, labelled ‘laboratory test’, so that proper authorities can assess the validity of their food poisoning allegation)
- Whether the patient has received medical attention
- If they haven’t, suggest that the customer visit a doctor so that they may be treated
- Encourage the patient to take samples for analysis (to confirm the nature of the illness)
Your aim here is to convey empathy without appearing overly apologetic, defensive, or otherwise indicating to the person that your food may be at fault. Promise that you will investigate the complaint immediately and contact them shortly with updates.
If you are not the business owner, inform the owner immediately, passing on all of the details collected from the customer.
Step 2. Investigate the Allegation
As Food Safety Supervisor, you must collect evidence from your business operations to gauge the validity of the food poisoning claim, and to prevent further damage to customers’ health if the claim is true.
To investigate the allegation:
- Interview staff who were on shift at the time of the customers’ visit
- Ascertain whether any other customers have recently reported food poisoning
- Check all kitchen records to ensure that the suspect foods were properly handled, cooked and stored
- Find out how many portions were sold that session or day
- Check if any of the food suspected of causing the illness remains on premises, and if so, hygienically contain it, label it as ‘suspected unsafe food’ and refrigerate it to a) ensure that it is not served to other customers, and b) provide evidence if a laboratory testing is required
Step 3. Report the Incident
If multiple people allege that they have contracted food poisoning from your business on the same occasion, contact your State or Territory authority or local council to report the incident. An Environmental Health Officer (EHO) may investigate your food business, including:
- Your food business’ kitchen
- Food preparation and storage procedures
- Staff’s food safety knowledge, training and skills
Step 4. Compensate the Customer
Whether or not your business is at fault for the illness or not, it might be a good idea to compensate the customer on grounds of ‘dissatisfaction’, or provide a gift certificate for a future purchase, in the aim of preserving a positive relationship with the customer.