5 Risk Factors That Cause Most Food-borne Illnesses

Food-borne Illness Risk

Have you ever had the misfortune of having an upset stomach from food that was not fit for consumption, or at least known of someone who has? Eating contaminated food which can lead to food-borne illness outbreaks as a result happens more often than you think.

In fact, every year 48 million Americans become sick from these food-borne diseases, and worldwide, this number is over 600 million!

One might wonder how this is possible, or how someone can’t simply notice when their food isn’t fit for consumption, as it’s not always easy to tell, but there are a few factors one must always test and consider beforehand.

We are here to help. Along with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), The team at Postharvest Learning has put together 5 major risk factors that cause the majority of food-borne illness.

1) Holding TCS foods at the wrong temperatures
2) Cooking foods to the wrong temperatures
3) Using contaminated utensils and equipment
4) Failing to follow personal hygiene rules
5) Purchasing food from unsafe food suppliers

1) Holding TCS foods at the wrong temperatures

TCS stands for “Temperature Control for Safety” foods, or food that requires time and certain temperatures to be reached in order to eliminate the growth of bacteria that causes food-borne illness. All foods with high moisture content are susceptible to the growth of bacteria and can be very dangerous to consume if they are held under the wrong temperatures or not cooked for a required amount of time.

Examples of TCS foods include raw meat, dairy, cooked vegetables and fruits. These require time and temperature control in order to be safe to consume. Once these foods have been cooked, it is recommended that they be eaten immediately. If they are being placed in a buffet or cafeteria to be served throughout the day, they should be held at the right temperature the entire time to prevent the bacteria from growing to dangerous levels.

What are the recommended cooking temperatures? Cold food should always be stored at 5 degrees Celsius (41°F), and hot foods at 57 degrees Celsius (134.6°F). When monitoring, don’t forget to check the temperatures frequently to ensure these holding temperatures are maintained. Having a metal stem temperature thermometer will help ensure that all is being cooked correctly.

2) Cooking foods to the wrong temperatures

Many people make the mistake of thinking that all bacteria that cause food-borne illness can simply be destroyed by adding heat in general, but it’s not always that simple. Not all foods require the same temperature in order to be safe to eat.

Heat is important in the cooking process for TLC foods, but it is also important to know what specific temperature each type of food needs to reach before being safe enough to consume.

Animal products contain pathogens that need to reach a certain temperature before they are eliminated, and the meat can be consumed. Examples such as Salmonella in chicken or Clostridium perfringens which can be found in meat and poultry, need to reach an exact temperature before all bacteria is eliminated.

If the required temperatures are not reached, the bacteria could still exist and the food would be unsafe to eat. It is important to know the required temperature for each type of food and ensure it is reached during the cooking process. Also, always ensure that you rinse the meats, vegetables, and fruits before cooking, as there are pathogens such as E. coli that create heat sustainable toxins that won’t be eliminated with high temperatures. So ensure that you buy food from approved suppliers, while also washing them thoroughly.

3) Using contaminated utensils and equipment

If the equipment that you use to cook or eat with is dirty or contaminated, the bacteria can be transferred into the food and cause food-borne illness. This is known as cross-contamination.

Dirty or contaminated utensils and equipment can transfer contamination to food and cause food-borne illness. Cross-contamination can occur in a few different ways. Examples include a lack of proper sanitation or thorough cleaning and old food residue that can build up and grow dangerous pathogens that can build up onto the equipment or utensils.

To avoid this, always be sure to sanitise and thoroughly clean your equipment and utensils after use, or when switching out tasks. Also, the working time limits of 4 hours is a great general rule of thumb. Sanitise after 4 hours, and make sure that your cutting knives and boards, as well as other equipment, are not mixing with different utensils that are handling different meats and vegetables. This can cause further cross-contamination.

4) Failing to follow personal hygiene rules

While preparing food, your own personal hygiene should also be considered. Did you know that one of the biggest causes of food-borne illnesses come from improperly washed hands? Great hygiene is essential and eliminates thousands of viruses and different bacterias that could be transferred into food during prep or eating. Other hygiene practices like clean aprons and clothes should also be factored in as well.

5) Purchasing food from unsafe food suppliers

One of the most important things to be aware of and ask questions about is the origin and approval process of your food suppliers. Where is the food sourced, and how is it treated within the supply chain? There are many government regulations and policies as well as systems in place to ensure that all foods that reach the market follow a very strict set of benchmarks to ensure it is safe to consume.

All factories and farms must maintain clean practices to remain in operation. So check with your suppliers, and look at their sources and processes to make sure that your food is handled safely and carefully.


There are 5 main ways to ensure that the food we prepare and consume is safe and bacteria-free. Food-borne illnesses are quite common worldwide and we should ensure that we use best practices while cooking to avoid them. Knowledge of the source of our meat, fruits and vegetables is important as well, to ensure the suppliers are maintaining food safety standards.

To learn more about safe food preparation & storage practices, visit Postharvest Learning for a greater understanding within our free online course library on how to handle and maximise the life of your fresh produce.

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