Food Poisoning at a Catered Event: Who’s Liable?

By: Jory Lange

Food poisoning lawyerFood poisoning outbreaks occur in many different scenarios – from restaurants to packaged products eaten at home. But a common source of food poisoning outbreaks are catered events. Many weddings and holiday turkey dinners have been ruined by foodborne pathogens. Outbreaks like these leave those who have become sick to wonder: (1) who is liable for this; and (2) should I pursue a claim?

The Liability Story

When it comes to foodborne illness, liability can be tricky.  It all starts with finding the root source. Typically, a local health department or another federal agency (like the Centers for Disease Control) will start an investigation of the outbreak. They will often interview those who have become sick. They may test the food items for dangerous bacteria. In some cases, they may test food service workers to see if they were sick when handling the food. They may test the temperature of the food, interview the food service workers to see how the food was prepared, they may do traceback to see where the food came from, and they may communicate with other agencies to see if there are similar issues.

Depending on the findings, the root cause may be found.

When the root cause is found, that is when liability can be determined. If the root cause is a sick employee or improper food preparation methods, the caterer may be the one liable. If the investigation determines that there was a contaminated food item involved, from a food manufacturer for instance, there may be liability against that manufacturer.

As determining liability is complex and often requires a great deal of investigation, it is recommended that someone who has become ill from a catered event consult with a food safety attorney to determine if they have a claim and who is liable for their illness.

How to Keep Yourself Safe at a Catered Event

As common as outbreaks linked to catered events are, you may be leery of eating at one. But the good news is that there are some simple things you can do to protect yourself and your family from getting sick.

  1.     Hot foods should be hot and cold foods should be cold.

If you have ever attended a catered event, you may have noticed that hot foods are often placed in sternos over small flames to keep them warm. These contraptions keep hot foods at the proper warm temperatures to avoid the growth of harmful bacteria. Likewise, cold foods are often served over ice or on top of a cold unit to keep them at their proper temperature.

When hot or cold foods feel lukewarm or room temperature, it is a good idea to avoid eating them. These foods may have already begun to grow harmful bacteria.

  1.     Do not eat food that has been left out longer than 2 hours.

Two hours inside (or one hour in warm weather) is the longest food should be left at room temperature. Any longer than this, harmful bacteria begin to grow.

  1.     Observe the people serving the food.

By looking at the food service workers, someone can usually tell if that person is sick. If someone serving you food is sick, it is best not to eat that food. Many outbreaks are started from a sick employee.

  1.     Avoid the usual suspects.

At any event, it is a good idea to steer clear of the usual items that lead to foodborne illness. These include:

  •      Raw oysters
  •      Items made with raw eggs – like some salad dressings or hollandaise sauce
  •      Raw sprouts
  •      Unpasteurized milk or dairy products
  •      Undercooked meats

Thanks to our friends and contributors from Make Food Safe for their insight into food poisoning claims.