Going to the Chapel, and We’re Gonna Get…. Sick?

Just imagine, you’ve been planning your wedding for months and after the big day finally comes you, your partner and dozens of guests fall ill, complaining of diarrhea, fatigue, nauseousness, sweating, and chills. That’s exactly what happened to a couple and their guests following their wedding reception, which was held at an Atlanta hotel. It was later uncovered through litigation that an outbreak of norovirus hit guests of at least three other events along with at least 40 hotel employees.

Norovirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States. Most of these outbreaks, says the CDC, occur in the food service settings like restaurants and hotels. Infected food workers are frequently the source of the outbreaks, often by touching ready-to-eat foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, with their bare hands before serving them. The most common symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain. Other symptoms include fever, headache and body aches. An individual typically develops symptoms 12 to 48 hours after being exposed to norovirus.

Further, it’s estimated that 24 to 81 million foodborne illnesses occur each year, resulting in more than 10,000 foodborne-associated deaths with resulting costs ranging anywhere from $7.7 to $23 billion. Foodborne illnesses include the norovirus, nontyphoidal salmonella, clostridium perfringens, campylobacter, staphylococcus aureus, toxoplasma gondii, listeria monocytogenes, and shiga toxin-producing E-coli.

The hospitality industry is mandated by the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and other state and local laws and health codes to operate facilities in a manner that protects guests from the possibility of foodborne illness, or any other injury that may be caused by consuming unwholesome food or beverages. In order to mitigate and better protect an organization against the risk of a foodborne illness outbreak, policies and procedures should be implemented and monitored for effectiveness. We have provided a risk management checklist here as a guideline for restaurants and hotels.

Yet food poisoning can occur even with best practices in place, presenting unique response challenges to restaurant and hotel owners. Many guests will not even know they have been infected with a foodborne illness until after they have left the establishment. In addition, many types of food poisoning do not present symptoms for more than a day after the food has been ingested. Delayed symptoms coupled with the numerous types of foodborne illness present a challenge of how best to respond to such an event. Food poisoning can have a devastating effect on a restaurant’s reputation that can last long after the last sick guest recovers.

If food poisoning does strike, it’s critical to respond quickly and effectively. If a customer complains about food poisoning, take the matter seriously. Get all the facts and perform a thorough investigation. Segregate all time records and shift reports from the date on which the patron visited the restaurant. Secure all food inventory logs. Also, work with the health inspector to get to the bottom of the situation and make it right.