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“Last Thing I Ate” Myth

March 10, 2016

By: Steve Leslie, Director and Counsel, Claims Program

 Here at the GMA Claims Program, one of the most common consumer complaints we receive is “this product made me sick!”  Certainly, no one questions whether contaminated food and beverage products can cause an illness.  However, many such claims are based on nothing more than a product being the last thing the consumer ate before the start of illness symptoms.  This fact alone is insufficient to support a foodborne illness claim, and actually tends to point to other sources of an illness.

Foodborne illness is most commonly caused by viral or bacterial contamination (though it can be parasitic as well).  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) website provides a thorough, but not exhaustive, list of foodborne illness-causing organisms.  It is important to note that these organisms are often spread in a manner unrelated to contaminated food (this is particularly true for viruses, which can linger on hard surfaces for weeks before becoming inactive).  Even in cases of contaminated food, the source is often unsanitary food preparation and handling and not contamination before or during the manufacturing process.  In fact, the manufacturing process for many products includes a heat treatment that would kill any foodborne illness-causing organisms.

Typical foodborne illness symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and general stomach pain.  If medical treatment is sought, a frequent diagnosis is gastroenteritis or “stomach flu” (although this illness is not actually related to influenza).  While these symptoms are common to most types of foodborne illness, the source can also be a number of other gastrointestinal ailments.  Absent lab work confirming the presence of foodborne illness-causing organisms, this amounts to nothing more than a “best guess” by the treating physician.

Most importantly, the incubation period between ingestion and onset of symptoms usually points to a source other than the last thing consumed.  The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has compiled a list of the incubation periods for the most common types of foodborne illness-causing organisms.  For the vast majority of these organisms, the incubation period is at least six hours.  Conversely, most consumers claim the offending product was eaten within two hours of the start of symptoms.  Such claims often include a report that the product “tasted funny,” which is more likely the result of that particular meal triggering a pre-existing, underlying illness.

Obviously, foodborne illness is a serious problem within the food and beverage industry.  But there are also a lot of consumer misperceptions about the nature of foodborne illness.  By understanding the basic facts and fictions of foodborne illness, customer service representatives and claims managers can better protect their brands against unfounded illness claims, often preventing these matters from escalating into litigation.


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Filed under: Product Safety

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