Ask the Critics: What Should I Do if I Get Food Poisoning?


Rebecca F. asks: My boyfriend and I think we got food poisoning from a restaurant we ate at a few days ago since we both got sick within half an hour of each other. Are we supposed to tell the restaurant? What do we do?

Dear Rebecca: Getting food poisoning flat-out sucks. Unfortunately, resolving the poisoning does, too.

Food poisoning is a common occurrence, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually just published new findings reporting that one in six Americans will get sick from known and unknown bacteria, viruses, and microbes each year. That’s about 48 million people, resulting in about 128,000 hospitalizations and about 3,000 deaths. Among these bacteria and viruses, norovirus causes about 60 percent of food-poisoning-related illnesses, while salmonella is the leading cause of hospitalizations.

However, the problem with food poisoning is that because microbes spread in so many ways, it’s exceedingly difficult to know if your illness was caused by food or something else. Generally speaking, though, the time elapsed between ingestion and symptoms will be 24 to 72 hours. So if you get sick 20 minutes after eating oysters, don’t be so sure that the oysters are to blame and immediately ring up the seafood restaurant where you dined.

I contacted the New York City Health Department with your inquiry, and their recommendation for consumers is not to call the restaurant directly, but to call 311, noting how many people in the dining party became ill. The Health Department will then follow up and interview callers about all food consumed, and will then follow up with the restaurants to determine if there is the possibility of a food-borne illness. If it’s determined that there is a possibility, they will send an inspector to the restaurant. The Health Department also recommends keeping any suspicious food for possible testing, but, unless you suspect your diarrhea was caused by your takeout dinner, this can be rather difficult.

If you think your food poisoning was caused from something that you purchased, you can call one of two governmental hotlines. For meat, poultry, egg, and milk products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854. For any other food product, call 888-723-3366.

So that’s the short end of it. Unfortunately, just because one person who got sick called 311 doesn’t mean that everyone else who got sick from the same place called 311, making the likelihood of a restaurant inspection very small. It’s probably best, though, if you and your boyfriend call 311 independently of each other. But basically you’re shit out of luck. Literally.