Often, people do not know whom to turn to when they think they are experiencing a foodborne illness or have food safety concerns. Reporting both issues is vital for improving safety across the entire food system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne illnesses are at least 10 times greater than what is reported because most go unreported, and people often do not go to a doctor unless symptoms are severe. This limits data that could help regulators trace illnesses to the culprit and remove the offending item from the food supply chain.
If you suspect you have a foodborne illness, immediately seek medical care. In some cases, a doctor may take a fecal specimen and send it to a laboratory to try to identify the organism causing the infection. If a reportable microorganism is identified, it will be disclosed to the local health department which will investigate. Unless the illness is severe, the doctor may only provide treatment for symptoms and not collect a specimen.
Regardless of whether your doctor collects a sample, you should report your illness to the local health department if you believe a particular food caused it. Be prepared to give details including your contact information, the food you suspect is causing your illness, your symptoms and when they began, when the food item was consumed and where it was purchased.
If you bought the food from a store, any information regarding the brand, lot number, date of purchase and receipt will help investigate your illness. If the food is still in your home, let the health department know and ask for instructions on what to do with it. They may want to collect the food for testing. Be sure to store the food safely so it is not in contact with other foods or accidentally eaten by others.
If you suspect a food establishment caused your illness, be prepared to tell the health department the name and location of the establishment, when you ate there, what food you ate and its ingredients, your symptoms and illness onset, and provide the receipt, if available. If you have leftovers, be sure to let the health department know and ask for instructions on what to do with them.
Food safety concerns include microbial contamination, incorrect labeling, and foreign objects found in food, among others. If you have concerns about food safety or sanitation issues at a food establishment such as a deli, restaurant or cafeteria, report them to your local health department, which regulates these establishments.
For other purchased foods, report issues to different agencies depending on the food type. Problems with meat, poultry, and eggs can be reported to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) 674-6854 or via the online complaint system at foodcomplaint.fsis.usda.gov/eCCF. In order for the USDA to investigate your complaint, you must have the original container or packaging, any foreign object found in the product and any uneaten portion of the food.
You should be prepared to tell the hotline your contact information as well as specific identifying information about the food including brand name, product name, manufacturer, product size and package type. Package codes and dates, store name and location, and date of purchase will help USDA investigations. Find more information on reporting issues on the USDA’s website atbit.ly/3Y3omKv.
Idaho and Washington residents can report complaints for all other foods to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Consumer Complaint Line at (800) 353-3965. The FDA will need similar information to the USDA. More information on reporting complaints to the FDA can be found at bit.ly/3Hf7gTg.
By reporting food-associated illnesses and food safety concerns, we can do our part to help agencies ensure the food supply’s safety, provide information to trace potentially hazardous foods and quickly remove hazardous products from the market.
Smith is an assistant professor and statewide consumer food specialist for Washington State University.She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have a food safety question you would like to see in this column, send your question to us at email@example.com.