4 Primary Food Safety Hazards and Preventing Foodborne Illness

The CDC has reported that 48 million people per year get sick from a foodborne illness, many of which are preventable. It is important for food service professionals to be aware of the primary types of food safety hazards, and the best methods of prevention.

Food Safety Hazards

There are four primary categories of food safety hazards to consider: biological, chemical, physical, and allergenic. Understanding the risks associated with each can dramatically reduce the potential of a foodborne illness. Each have their own unique characteristics, but all can be avoided through proper food safety management.

Biological Hazards

Biological hazards are characterized by the contamination of food by microorganisms. Found in the air, food, water, animals, and in the human body, these incredibly tiny organisms are not inherently unsafe – many provide benefits to our anatomy. Despite this, foodborne illness can occur if harmful microorganisms make their way into the food we eat. There are several types of microorganisms, each of which can negatively impact health: bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

There are a variety of factors that influence dangerous microorganism growth, including temperature, pH levels, and moisture of the food. The USDA has coined a term for the temperature range that encourages bacterial growth: the Danger Zone. This temperature range, 40° F – 140° F, enables bacteria to grow most rapidly, nearly doubling its number in 20 minutes. In addition, the pH level of a food, or its acidity, can accelerate growth. Foods that are less acidic, such as milk, tend to foster bacteria at higher rates than more acidic foods, like lemon juice. Microbes prefer warmer, wetter environments, which make moist foods hotbeds for microorganism growth.

Biological Hazard Examples

Biological HazardCommonly found in
SalmonellaEggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, fruits and vegetables, spices, and nuts
NorovirusProduce, shellfish, ready-to-eat foods
CampylobacterRaw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk, contaminated water
E. coliUndercooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk or juice, raw milk cheeses, raw fruits and vegetables, contaminated water
ListeriaReady-to-eat deli meats and hot dogs, unpasteurized milk or juice, raw milk cheeses
Clostridium perfringensBeef, poultry, gravies

Biological Hazard Prevention

The best way to prevent biological hazards from affecting customers is to implement robust processing and storage strategies. Kill steps used prior to packaging is necessary, such as cooking thoroughly or pasteurization of milk and juices. Use of packaging technologies during processing like vacuum sealing hinders bacterial growth. Proper temperature management for storage can dramatically reduce microbe growth. Finally, effective sanitation practices throughout the distribution chain will reduce cross-contamination of food products.

Chemical Hazards

Chemical hazards are identified by the presence of harmful substances that can be found in food naturally, or unintentionally added during processing. Some chemical hazards include naturally occurring chemicals, such as mycotoxins, intentionally added chemicals, including the preservative sodium nitrate, and unintentionally added chemicals, like pesticides.

Chemical Hazards Examples

Chemical HazardExamples
MycotoxinsProduced by fungi and can be toxic to humans and animals. They are formed by moulds which grow on crops and foods under certain conditions.
Natural ToxinsBiochemical compounds produced by plants in response to certain conditions or stressors.
Marine ToxinsDecomposition or microscopic marine algae accumulated in fish and shellfish.
Environmental ContaminantsAccidentally or deliberately enter the environment. Typically manufactured for industrial use.
Food AdditivesAny chemical substance that is added to food during preparation or storage.
Processing-induced ChemicalsUndesirable chemicals can be formed in certain foods during processing as a result of reactions between compounds that are natural components of the food.
Pesticides/Agricultural ProductsUsed to control, destroy, or repel a pest, or to mitigate the effects of a pest.
Veterinary Drug ResiduesUsed in food-producing animals to control and/or prevent illness in the animal.

Chemical Hazards Prevention

Similar to preventing biological hazards, proper cleaning procedures and sanitation requirements are the best methods of prevention. Training employees to follow strict guidelines is essential in preventing a chemical hazard. Additionally, limiting the use of chemicals to those generally recognized as safe (GRAS), and ensuring that chemicals are stored in designated areas separated from food products.

Physical Hazards

Physical hazards are foreign objects that are found in food products. They are either naturally found in the specific item, such as stems in fruit, or not normally part of the food item, such as hair or plastic. Unnatural physical hazards are generally more dangerous to health, whereas natural physical hazards can be harmless.

Physical Hazards Examples

Physical HazardExamples
UnnaturalInsects, hair, metal fragments, pieces of plastic, wood chips, and glass
NaturalStems in blueberries, microscopic airborne debris, dirt on potatoes, or minute insect fragments in figs

Physical Hazards Prevention

Prevention of physical hazards focus primarily on thorough inspection of food, and strict adherence to food safety regulations, such as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) discussed below. Organizations can also take proactive steps in eliminating the potential of a physical hazard. Light bulbs, for instance, can be manufactured using different materials. Acrylic is both lighter and stronger than glass, and tends to shatter into larger, blunter fragments than glass.

Allergenic Hazards

The final, and perhaps the most deadly, are allergenic hazards. Allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., with more than 50 million people suffering from allergies each year. Allergic reactions occur when the human body produces an abnormal immune response to specific proteins found in food.


Allergenic Hazards

Allergenic HazardCommonly found in
MilkButter, cheese, cream, milk powders, and yogurt
EggsCakes, some meat products, mayonnaise, mousse, pasta, quiche, sauces, and foods brushed with egg
NutsBreads, biscuits, crackers, desserts, ice cream, marzipan, nut oils, sauces, and curries or stir fries
SoyDesserts, ice cream, sauces, and vegetarian products
WheatBaking powders, batter, breadcrumbs, brea, cakes, couscous, pasta, pastries, sauces, soups, and foods dusted with flour
FishFish sauces, pizzas, relishes, salad dressings, stock cubes, and Worcestershire sauce
ShellfishShrimp paste, and curries or salads


Unfortunately there is no way to prevent allergies, but it is possible to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction. So long as companies embrace proper sanitation techniques and present potential allergenic ingredients obviously on product packaging, allergic reactions will be minimized. Preventing an allergic reaction falls primarily on the consumer, but they can only do so effectively if businesses do their part with effective sanitation and labeling of ingredients.

Regulations and Laws

Regulatory bodies including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have implemented laws that help minimize food safety risk and ensure safer food safety practices. In doing so, food safety practices have become significantly more robust and effective.

Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP)

HACCP, implemented in 1997, changed food safety methodology to be science-based as opposed to conventional “sight, smell, and touch” inspection. HACCP’s core principles provides a means to analyze biological, chemical, and physical hazards along the supply chain. This prevents outbreaks before they can occur rather than responding to them after the fact, and helped to accelerate technology used to manage food safety. Foodborne illnesses reduced dramatically as a result of HACCP.

Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)

Similar to HACCP, FSMA has enabled additional methods of preventing food contamination. The Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food has three methods of preventing foodborne illness: vehicles and transportation operations must validate temperatures in transit, staff must be trained properly to prevent practices that create food safety risk, and new record keeping requirements created efficient mechanisms to demonstrate proper temperature control. Through proactive management of food safety, distributors are better equipped to prevent foodborne illness.

Source: https://blog.smartsense.co