Dear Helena,

If you get sick after eating at a restaurant, should you call them [or] call the health department? I’ve heard, with regards to restaurants, that it’s so hard to pinpoint what might have made you sick, and it’s usually not what you think it was. —Still Queasy

Dear Still Queasy,

That’s true. Most cases of food poisoning show up four to eight hours after ingesting the bad food, but some bacteria can incubate in the gut for days or even weeks. Sandra McCurdy, a food safety specialist at the University of Idaho, says: “With listeria, it could be six weeks before it manifests as an infection. E. coli takes a few days to show up.”

It’s not likely that remembering an off flavor will help you identify the toxic food. In general, says McCurdy, it takes a mere 500 bacterial cells—a microscopic amount—to make you sick: “You won’t notice a difference in taste or smell.” To make matters more complicated, the culprit may not have been food poisoning at all. You may have touched a soiled doorknob in the bathroom, or suffered from the effects of a food allergy you didn’t know you had. You can, however, be more certain you ate something bad if your friends ate the same thing and also got sick.

So in that case, what are you obliged to do? In an informal survey, all except one of my respondents said they did not bother calling the restaurant where they ate the food they considered suspect. Neither did many of the Chowhounds who have discussed this topic. (Discussion about specific food-poisoning complaints is barred from Chowhound because the cause is so hard to trace.) Complaining is unpleasant, and it can be a practical hassle too.

If you do make the call, it might not do any good. Shannon Smith, a nurse in San Francisco, endured a hellish night after a toxic curry, and called the restaurant. “They basically said there was no way they caused the food poisoning, because if it was true more people would have called. I tried to emphasize that their meal was the only one I had eaten that could have caused it in my opinion, but they still denied any fault.”

In fact, says David Guggenheim, a veteran server in Los Angeles, restaurant staff members are taught not to admit any wrongdoing for liability reasons. At most, the customer gets a noncommittal apology: “We’re sorry you had a bad night.” Then the staff member will ask what you had and promise to investigate. Don’t expect any offer of compensation, Guggenheim says: “If you say, ‘I’m so sorry, here’s a coupon, a free meal, or a bottle of wine,’ you’re accepting fault.”

But it’s still worth calling. If the restaurant has received other calls, staff can be fairly confident the problem lies in their kitchen and may look into it. Just be sure that when you call you aren’t confrontational, because you can’t be sure the restaurant caused your illness.

McCurdy recommends contacting your local public health authority as well. (If your doctor diagnoses food poisoning, he’s supposed to do this himself by law.) Because of limited funding, the health department probably won’t do anything if yours is an isolated incident. But if other people call in with similar reports, then the department will launch an investigation.

It’s a little frustrating to make your calls and know they probably will have little effect. But you can’t worry about what other people are supposed to do. All you can do is your own ethical duty. You’re not obliged to launch an Erin Brockovich–style crusade to shut down a restaurant, especially when you’re too weak to eat anything but crackers.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

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