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dealing with food poisoning

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dealing with food poisoning

Fine | Apr 19, 2002 07:56 PM

"Was up all night with a terrible case of food poisoning" said the voice at the other end of the line. Knowing in advance what the reply would surely be, I nonetheless responded as I always do to such news: "Did you phone the health department?" "No, I phoned the restaurant."

I controlled my frustration and urge to say, "Great! Restaurant staffs are really equipped with the tools, knowledge, and authority to try to identify and stop a contamination before others are affected." I knew the victim was feeling lousy and didn't want to be chastised for mistakenly thinking the "good guy" thing to do was notify the restaurant rather than the authorities.

What I should have said is: Health departments never identify people who report suspected food poisoning; any restaurateur worth her license to operate appreciates quick help in stopping a potential problem that could lead to loss of the business, never mind serious illness or even death of a customer; time is of the essence in these matters; if the victim didn't get sick from the restaurant's food, the place will get a clean bill of health and no harm is done, but if he did, a source of illness may be found and cleared up.

My caller suspected oysters. No one should ever eat mollusks in a restaurant without first asking to see the tag that, by law, accompanies and must remain with every shipment. At least the diner will know the date the shellfish arrived and the waters of origin before deciding whether or not to order. "No one else got sick," was the next bit of information. It's a mistake to assume that every diner will react identically to contaminants: age, status of immune system, medications, etc., all play a role in susceptibility.

A well-trained health inspector will check not only storage conditions, temperatures, and overall sanitation, but also any evidence of illness, wounds, or poor personal hygiene in folks handling the food. Such a person can quickly order an inspection at the source as well: the wholesaler, distributor, packer, vessel--whatever is indicated.

In this case, the victim was quite sure of the source. More often, I hear, "Well, I couldn't be sure it was the restaurant." So what? The responsible thing to do is to let the experts determine that.

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