Last year, a man in Orange County, California got sick, and he blamed it on something funky he ate. This happens to almost everyone sooner or later, and we spend the subsequent hours over the toilet, cursing the miscreant griddle or cutting board that we believe to be at fault. While most of us are mere mortals, the aforementioned man was a food critic, and he used his platform to demand that Orange County issue health inspection letter-grades to restaurants because of his unfortunate stomach bug.
The critic, Brad A. Johnson of the Orange County Register, wrote, "I was planning to review a restaurant in Newport Beach this week. Instead, I got food poisoning there. Everyone at my table got sick. Unspeakably sick. For days. It was awful." After some investigating, Johnson found that the restaurant had a record of health inspection violations. An editor's note mentions that the paper was "not identifying the restaurants involved in this report." Their explanation was that because "nearly half of Orange County restaurants would not receive an A under the letter-grade system, the problem addressed here is widespread. Rather than single out specific eateries for violations, the goal of this column is to show a systemwide problem."
But would it be fair—or even ethical—for a professional restaurant critic to so much as allude to a post-meal illness in a review?
"No, food critics are not allowed to mention that they got food poisoning at a restaurant," says Eater restaurant critic Robert Sietsema. "For one thing, they are not medical experts, and I think even an internist would be hesitant to attribute food poisoning to a particular establishment." Plenty of things can make you sick, and pinpointing a specific eatery or dish is incredibly difficult—and proving so after the publication of a review, which usually occurs weeks or months after the critics' last visit to the restaurant, is even harder.
And since being incognito is the name of the game for restaurant critics, throwing samples from every course into baggies for future lab testing could be slightly counterproductive.
Even amateur food critics (read: anyone with the Internet) are capable of becoming snagged in this ethical quagmire. "The reputation of many otherwise decent restaurants has been ruined by careless (and probably libelous) use of social media to proclaim, 'I got food poisoning there, so stay away,'" says Sietsema.
So puke your heart out, drink some ginger ale, and eat a few saltines—but use caution and sense if you choose to broadcast the identity of the eatery that was allegedly at fault to the world. If you are mistaken, that won't sit well with anyone.
(Note: If your illness is serious, go see a medical professional—their review is the only one that matters.)
A paragraph regarding incubation periods for foodborne illnesses has been removed. Many take days, but others are more immediate. For more information, visit the CDC's website here.