Ask The Salty Waitress: What Should I Do If I Suspect A Restaurant Gave Me Food Poisoning?

Dear Salty, I'll spare you the details, but I got a bad case of food poisoning last week that basically kept me in the bathroom for 48 hours. I'm pretty sure it's because of a meal I had at an Italian restaurant; specifically, I suspect the clams.

My question is whether I should call the restaurant or even the county health department? It's been five days since I got sick, so I'm not sure whether there's any point in reporting it now. If it ever happened again though, what should I do?

Thanks,Damn Those Clams

Dear Clams,

My condolences on your recently strengthened relationship with the bathroom floor. I myself had what felt at the time like a near-death experience following some questionable crab years ago, so I sympathize.

I'm not doubting your story, but this is a little PSA for the rest of the audience: Most people mistake the cause of their food poisoning—it's called "last meal bias." We tend to think that the last meal we ate is what did us in, but it can take up to three days for certain food-borne viruses to rear its ugly head. So before you go pointing fingers at Trattoria La Barf, just make sure you've got the right perp.

If you really suspect a certain restaurant gave you food poisoning, absolutely call them up. Even if five days have passed, it's good for them to have that complaint on their radar. Who knows, you might not be the only victim, and the restaurant might learn from the situation. Or they might try to make amends with you by offering a gift certificate or something—not that you'd necessarily be chomping at the bit to return to the scene.

And you can definitely call the county health department. A quick Googling should show you which office handles food-borne outbreaks in your area. They're not going to shut down a restaurant just because you called, but your case could be linked to other cases and lead to an investigation and find the culprit and prevent further contamination and basically save the world. (Maybe.)

According to the fine folks at the Virginia Department Of Health, you'll want to have a few details handy when you report an illness: the who, what, when, where, how of it all:

  • How many people are sick?
  • What are the symptoms of illness?
  • When did the illness begin and how long did it last?
  • Are people still becoming sick?
  • What did the ill people eat?
  • How many people were potentially exposed?
  • Once a health department gets your complaint, they'll review it and gather any other info they need. Then, they'll decide whether they need to visit the restaurant that you suspect made you sick, and will check to see whether your complaint is part of a pattern of illnesses.

    Bottom line: Don't go accusing restaurants of food poisoning willy-nilly, but if you have a legitimate case, let the restaurant and your health department know.