Ask The Salty Waitress: What should I do if I suspect a restaurant gave me food poisoning?

Illustration for article titled Ask The Salty Waitress: What should I do if I suspect a restaurant gave me food poisoning?
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The Salty WaitressThe Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.

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?

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.



The sickest I have ever been came from a bout of food poisoning I got when I was in college.

As a not-particularly-well-off college student at a large state university, I was keen for finding cheap food. I found a chinese restaurant that was the cheapest of the cheap—they had a chicken curry dish that sold for just $4.50, which was an amazing deal (circa early 2000s).

It was a dingy dirty looking restaurant that was located in a small landing beneath a stripmall next to campus that you had to descend a fligth of stairs to get to—there were just 3 stores down there AND 2 of the stores were boarded up. So we are talking like hole in the wall, operating out of a hole in the wall of a hole in the wall.

But I had limited funds, the next cheapest Chinese option cost $2 additional or more, and the flavor was pretty decent so I was like I’m gonna roll with it.

One night, after having their curry, I returned to my dorm and I started to feel a bit off. My roommates were going out to a party, but I went to bed early to try to get ahead of the “cold.” I woke out feeling violently ill in the middle of the night.

It was September, when it was still pretty hot at night (at least 80 degrees) and my dorm had no air conditioning, but I woke up shivering, cold, and drenched in sweat. I needed to vomit, so I tried to get up to go to the bathroom, but I found that my hands and legs were numb, and I was literally too weak to stand.

I could barely crawl on my hands and knees to the bathroom, and I knew something was deeply wrong, especially when I began to feel the tip of my NOSE going numb, a sensation I’ve not felt before or since.

My roommates weren’t back and this was before I owned a cellphone (jeez I’m old) so I crawled to the landline phone, and called my dad—my ‘rents lived only about 30 minutes away, so I was like “dad, you need to take me to the ER”

Got to the ER, and the triage nurse began by taking my temperature. I remember thinking “oh-oh” when her eyebrows shot up. Then they tried to take my blood pressure, and the machine literally could not pick up my BP because it had dropped too low.

They immediately stuck an IV in my arm, threw me in a bed, and wheeled me into the ER, while I was thinking “shit, I’m sick enough to not need to wait?”

Luckily, I was fine in the end with no ill effects, but the food poisoning that screwed with my electrolyte balance so badly (potassium deficiency) that my heart when into arrhythmia and I nearly died.

I never ate at that Chinese restaurant again, and I try to stay away from any restaurant that can’t keep it’s floors clean. Which seems like generally a good rule for life.

I probably should have reported them, as I can’t imagine I’m the only one they made sick.