Food safety

4 Major Biological Hazards in Food: Causes, Examples, Prevention Tips

Biological hazards contribute most to the reported 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses worldwide every year.

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Biological hazards contribute most to the reported 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses worldwide every year.

  • Biological hazards refer to living organisms that can contaminate food and cause negative health effects on consumers.
  • Examples of biological hazards include viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites.
  • Simple food handling practices, such as proper handwashing and strict monitoring, significantly contribute to controlling biological hazards.

Most foodborne illnesses reported in food safety news are often caused by one major type of food safety hazard - biological hazards. One of the most significant tasks of food handlers is to control biological hazards in foods and protect consumers from their effects. Food safety and biological hazards co-exist in the food industry as most raw ingredients are organic. Biological hazards in food are practically invisible to humans, making them very hard to remove from a food facility. They can enter at any point in the distribution of food.

Maintaining food safe from biological hazards requires preventive controls and strict monitoring. The effects of biological hazards, when consumed by customers, can cause severe health risks and economic loss to your food business. Every food handler is responsible for learning and understanding how to prevent biological hazards in food to protect public safety. This is one of the major requirements for food safety compliance.

Read through this detailed article on biological hazards in food and find out how you can consistently control them with FoodDocs' digital Food Safety Management System.

Here is a quick walkthrough of what is discussed in this article:



Biological hazards in food

Biological hazards in food are pathogenic organisms or their products that can cause health problems when ingested, such as foodborne illnesses or food poisoning. It is one of the major types of hazards. Biological hazards are a significant concern in the food industry. In fact, major biological hazards caused most of the foodborne illness outbreaks recorded in history.

Because of poor food safety practices, biological hazards become dangerous to public health when they enter the food chain system. This type of foodborne hazard causes symptoms such as watery diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Some cases of foodborne illnesses caused by biological hazards can even lead to death when left untreated.

The organisms considered biological hazards can either cause infection or intoxication in humans. Human infection refers to the case when the organism itself enters the host and causes the illness. In contrast, intoxication occurs when the by-product of the organism causes the illness.

The effects of biological hazards may differ depending on the contaminating organism, environmental factors, and the level of food safety approach applied by a food business.


biological hazards shown on glass


Biological hazard vs. biological contamination

Biological hazard refers to the organism that causes foodborne illnesses and other risk factors to human health. On the other hand, biological contamination is when pathogenic hazards enter the food chain. Biological contamination is caused by foodborne hazards such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, which are all collectively known as biological hazards that make food unsafe for consumption. 


Types of biological hazards 

There are several biological food hazards recognized in the food industry. Some of them are known to cause severe health problems, whereas others are less common. Regardless of the risk that a biological hazard may have, they all prefer growing in moist and nutritious environments. This fact makes food their number one target.


There are major types of biological hazards that every food handler must be aware of, and these include the following:

  • Virus. Foodborne viruses contribute to the most number of cases of foodborne illnesses and communicable diseases in the U.S., with norovirus as the most recognized among them. Other known viruses in the food industry include the following
    • enterovirus
    • rotavirus
    • astrovirus
    • hepatitis A virus (HAV)

Viruses are very resistant to intense conditions such as high acidity and heat and can be easily transferred from the food handler to the food being prepared.

Viruses are most commonly associated with contaminated water, seafood, vegetables, and food handlers. Some of the most common infectious diseases caused by viruses include gastroenteritis and hepatitis.

  • Bacteria. Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that can live on moist food items and cause unwanted changes and hazardous effects. Foodborne bacteria are very common in food businesses as they can be found in the water, air, soil, and gastrointestinal tract of animals. Some types can cause both intoxication and infection.

The types of foodborne bacteria vary greatly. Some can survive extreme conditions, whereas some bacteria can be eliminated easily and have minimal threats to human health. Some bacteria can stay inactive in the form of spores and multiply when the conditions are favorable again. This mechanism of bacteria makes them a major concern in food preparation.

Some of the most commonly known foodborne bacteria include the following:

    • Escherichia coli (E. coli; commonly found in water, leafy greens, raw milk, and meat)
    • Bacillus cereus (commonly found in rice and other starchy foods)
    • Salmonella (commonly found in raw meat and poultry products)
    • Staphylococcus (commonly found on the skin of food handlers and poultry products)
    • Listeria (commonly found in unpasteurized milk, ice cream, and vegetables)
    • Campylobacter (commonly found in undercooked poultry)
    • Clostridium (commonly found in undercooked meat products)

  • Fungi. This type of biological agent includes both yeasts and molds. Microscopic fungi are known for their ability to survive in very acidic and dry conditions. This makes them a critical concern for intermediate moisture foods and preserved products. Foodborne fungi are also known to have significant economic use. Some types of fungi are used to produce new food products, such as cheeses and wines. Despite this, there are examples of fungi that can cause serious illnesses.

Several fungi are known to produce toxins that are very hard to remove when they have contaminated foods. In such cases, prevention is a better approach to protecting human health. Some of the most common foodborne fungi include the following:

    • Aspergillus sp. (commonly found in grains and nuts)
    • Candida sp. (commonly found in grains, dairy products, and processed meats)

  • Parasites. Parasites are microorganisms that gain their source of nutrition at the expense of their host. They can live in moist foods and transfer to humans, where they can cause foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider protozoa as the most common foodborne parasites. 

Other examples of foodborne parasites include:

    • Trichinella sp. (commonly found in raw meats)
    • Cryptosporidium sp. (commonly found in raw milk and contaminated water)

Among the mentioned types of biological hazards, a few species are recognized to cause the most foodborne illness cases worldwide. The big 6 major pathogens include:

  1. Norovirus
  2. Nontyphoidal Salmonella
  3. Salmonella Typhi
  4. E. coli
  5. Shigella
  6. Hepatitis A


science of food safety


Other references include natural toxins produced by dangerous pathogens to be categorized as biological hazards.

Biological hazards significantly contribute to the average of 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. each year. At least $95.2 billion per year is lost in low- and middle-income countries in treating foodborne diseases and economic losses caused by biological hazards.

Use FoodDocs' digital HACCP plan builder and automatically get a detailed and customizable analysis of the most significant biological hazards in your food safety operations. With our digital solution, you can immediately establish critical controls and preventive measures to protect your customers.


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What is an example of a biological hazard in food? 

Biological hazards in food are common, especially in food businesses with poor food safety management. Microorganisms considered biological hazards can contaminate a wide range of food products and produce very different outcomes.

Some biological hazard examples in food produce observable changes. Such is the case of molds on fruits. Molds produce a cotton-like formation on the surface of the contaminated food products. Other changes may be observed as bad smell, acidic taste, or softening of the food's surface.

Some biological hazards do not form noticeable changes until they significantly multiply. Despite this, they can still cause foodborne illnesses, even in low cell counts. A common example of this is Salmonella in raw poultry. This bacteria does not usually produce obvious changes and can still cause diseases when contaminated food is improperly processed.


What are examples of biological hazards in a restaurant or food service operation?

Learning how to prevent biological hazards in food is one of the most significant tasks of every food handler. A part of training food service handlers is identifying the most common contaminants in a food service operation.

The following are examples of biological hazards in food service operations:

  • Viruses and bacteria from food handlers (e.g., norovirus and Staphylococcus aureus on the skin of food handlers)
  • Bacterial pathogen from raw ingredients (e.g., Salmonella in poultry products)
  • Parasites and hepatitis A virus from the water system
  • Yeast on fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Cross-contaminated ready-to-eat foods

A restaurant facility provides a very hospitable location for biological hazards. That is why food handlers must be trained to handle foods to avoid introducing biological hazards properly. 

You can use our free food safety quiz tool for training food handlers on the essential operations for controlling biological hazards in a restaurant.


Where are biological hazards commonly found?

Biological hazards are always around us, especially in food businesses. Since the main source of nutrition and energy for biological hazards are also food products, a restaurant kitchen or retail food store is a suitable environment for them to survive.

Below are some of the most common points where biological hazards can be found:

  • Food contact surfaces. This point includes preparation tables, equipment, tools, and a safe food storage area. Biological hazards can survive on leftover food or uncleaned spills on food contact surfaces. Without proper cleaning and sanitation of food workplaces, hazards such as bacteria can form a film that will protect themselves, making them harder to remove.
  • Food handlers. Humans are natural habitats for biological hazards. The bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, a known foodborne illness-causing pathogen, lives on the skin of humans. When food handlers do not practice proper food hygiene, such as handwashing, the biological hazard can be transferred to the food.

In addition, food handlers are the fastest way for biological hazards to travel. Through cross - contamination and the lack of food hygiene, common bacteria and viruses can quickly spread from one place to another.


biological contamination through sneezing


  • Water system. A majority of biological hazards travel through contaminated water. An underground water supply increases the risk of fecal contamination and requires regular water treatment. An example of this case is the recent Salmonella outbreak in California, as reported by the FDA. The outbreak caused 1127 cases of foodborne illness. The investigation of the outbreak pointed to the contaminated water system to be the significant factor in the case.

Once your water system is contaminated, your entire food service area can easily become contaminated as well. Water is used in almost all operations inside a kitchen.

  • Raw materials. Several biological hazards are soilborne and are considered environmental contaminants. This means that they originate from the soil and can be transferred to foods produced near to the ground. The case is especially true for plant materials such as crops, vegetables, and fruits. As such, strict preparation of raw materials is necessary to reduce the potential microbial load of your food supply.
  • Air ventilation system. Biological hazards are microscopic organisms that cannot be seen by the naked eye. This characteristic of biological hazards makes them light and can be transferred through the air along with foreign objects, such as dust and dirt. In addition, some airborne pathogens can travel through spores, such as mold spores, and grow on foods once they land on them. 
  • Pests. Although generally considered physical hazards, pests can become carriers of biological hazards. Rats and insects can carry harmful bacteria and viruses, which can be easily spread through foreign materials, such as hair strands or broken parts. Studies have shown cases of rodents serving as the main cause of foodborne illness outbreaks through shedding and infectious waste or droppings.


Preventing the spread of foodborne biological hazards can be an easy task if consistently done and monitored. A food business with a comprehensive food monitoring system based on a hazard analysis can significantly control the presence of biological agents.

Use FoodDocs' digital Food Monitoring System to get intuitive solutions for monitoring food safety practices. Our software features solutions that automatically generate monitoring logs with prefill solutions and a smart notification system to help ensure consistent food safety compliance.


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What can biological hazards in food cause?

The effects of biological hazards can range from a simple abdominal cramp to more serious cases that can lead to life-threatening diseases or death. Depending on the causative agent, the degree of contamination, and the overall health of the consumer. 

When customers consume foods contaminated with biological hazards, the effects can include the following:

  • Watery diarrhea, which can be bloody diarrhea in more serious cases
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue

In consumers with weak immune systems, the results of consuming contaminated foods can have more adverse effects. These consumers include pregnant women, the elderly, and children under the age of five. When uncontrolled, the effects of biological agents can spread and affect more consumers, leading to a foodborne outbreak. In such cases, food businesses are tasked to cooperate with food safety inspectors during outbreak investigations to control the situation.


Which food safety practice will help prevent biological hazards?

Using a preventive approach to control biological hazards is proven to be most effective in reducing unnecessary costs and damages. Simple food handling practices and personal hygiene can significantly contribute to reducing food safety issues from foodborne pathogens.

To help food handlers prevent biological hazards and public health risks, follow these tips and guidelines:

  • Regularly practice proper handwashing.
  • Follow the proper dress code for food handlers.
  • Cook foods to the correct internal temperature.
  • Organize foods in the refrigerator. Use a Fridge Organization Chart to guide food handlers.
  • Use separate tools and utensils in preparing raw food and ready-to-eat products.
  • Clean surfaces before applying sanitizer.
  • Instruct food handlers to wear gloves when necessary.
  • Make sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions in using sanitizers.
  • Inspect incoming food supplies for proper storage conditions and food quality.
  • Monitor and control storage conditions (e.g., temperature and humidity). Avoid storing foods within the temperature danger zone.
  • Do not allow sick food handlers to prepare food.


Proper controls and monitoring procedures must be set in place to ensure that these common practices are always followed. With consistent performance, your food business can become free from public health risk factors of foodborne hazards. This makes your business compliant with food safety regulations.

You can use our free food safety tools and templates to guide food handlers in preventing contamination by biological hazards. Use our free food storage chart and free sanitation standard operating procedures template to ensure proper storage conditions and a clean working facility at all times. We also provide all cooking temperature charts for ensuring proper cooking and processing of foods.

Use more intuitive solutions to help your employees control bacterial hazards and other infectious pathogens in your food business. Using FoodDocs' digital Food Safety Management System, food handlers can smoothly monitor food safety tasks. They can use prefill solutions that automatically input data on monitoring sheets based on previously inserted data. All that is left to do is to verify if the data is correct. In addition, our digital solutions make it less likely for food handlers to forget tasks through a smart notification system.

Read more about our smart software in detail in the next chapter!


How can I help my team control biological hazards?

Biological hazards include a great food safety risk for both the consumers and your food business. Causing a single foodborne illness outbreak not only puts public health at risk, but your business also becomes at risk of losing customer loyalty. 

Despite their potential adverse effects, biological risks can be effectively controlled with very simple steps. All you need to do is to analyze the hazards, set preventive measures, and then establish a consistent monitoring procedure to ensure compliance with preventive measures. 

Do all of these steps in just 1 hour with our digital solutions at FoodDocs! 


How can I automatically analyze biological hazards?

Hazard analysis is a critical task, especially for creating risk-based food safety plans. Biological hazard assessments involve identifying the following

  • potential public health risk that the biological hazard has
  • the severity of the illness it can cause
  • the likelihood of its occurrence 

This information will determine the appropriate approach and preventive measures needed to control biological hazards.

Identifying and analyzing biological hazards is the first step in any food safety plan. Your team must manually list all potential biological hazards related to your food business and analyze them one by one. This step can be supported by analytical methods conducted to evaluate your products. You can use our free HACCP Hazard Analysis Template to get a detailed guide in analyzing foodborne hazards.

In controlling biological and other types of hazards, the sooner you identify and analyze them, the faster you can create preventive solutions and protect consumers from the risk of hazards.

At FoodDocs, you can automatically have a comprehensive list of biological, physical, and chemical hazards related to your food business. As a critical part of our customizable digital HACCP plan builder, our software generates a thorough, smart hazard analysis table complete with essential information about the hazards.



Digital HACCP Plan: Hazards Summary at FoodDocs


What makes our software more flexible is that you can customize the information analysis with easily editable fields and preselected levels of severity and likelihood of occurrence. You can further improve the analysis and tailor-fit the descriptions and justifications according to your business needs.

The hazard analysis part is just the first of many features of our digital HACCP plan builder! In a total of 1 hour, you can get a complete and customizable digital HACCP plan by just answering a few basic questions about your business. Through the help of artificial intelligence and a machine-learning program, our software can generate a comprehensive HACCP plan template with detailed information related to your business operations.


Get the most essential parts of a HACCP plan, such as:

  • Complete hazard analysis
  • Detailed critical control points with clear critical limits
  • Appropriate monitoring procedures
  • Corrective action plan
  • Verification procedures
  • Record-keeping and documentation procedures


HACCP_template (1)

HACCP Plan Template from FoodDocs


Our software is a great alternative method that significantly shortens the common amount of time you need to spend on making a HACCP plan with the traditional method. In just approximately 1 hour, you can take control of your food safety and start serving safe food.


How can I efficiently monitor biological hazards?

As we have mentioned, a key part of controlling biological hazards after their analysis is consistently monitoring the established preventive methods. At FoodDocs, you can get all the necessary tasks done to completely control biological hazards.

After establishing your HACCP food safety plan, use our digital Food Safety Management System to automatically generate all essential monitoring logs to make monitoring tasks easier. With our digital solution, you can get useful and intuitive features such as the following:

  • Get automatically generated monitoring logs fit for your business operations. The generated logs are based on tasks that you need to control the identified hazards in your food business. Some of the most useful logs that our software can provide for controlling biological hazards include the following:
    • Cooking temperature log
    • Water testing log

Water testing log FoodDocs

Water Testing Log from FoodDocs


    • Employee hygiene checklist
    • Master sanitation schedule
    • Fridge temperature log

Fridge temperature log on FoodDocs

Fridge Temperature Log from FoodDocs


  • Receiving chilled goods log

All monitoring logs and checklists are equipped with detailed instructions to guide food handlers in performing and monitoring the tasks. With this feature, you can ensure that your employees are correctly controlling biological hazards.

  • Use our smart FoodDocs app on any mobile device to make monitoring easier and more accessible:
    • Get smart notifications that will remind your employees when they need to monitor a particular task. With this feature, you can ensure that no task is ever forgotten and your facility is always in top condition.
    • Our digital app features a prefill solution for temperature logs that bases the information on previously encoded data. The feature saves time and helps improve accuracy in monitoring the key points in your food business. Employees would only need to verify the inserted information.

Our digital Food Safety Management System was built to make consistent food safety compliance easier and more accessible for food business owners. 

Maintain compliance using our digital Food Safety Management System and effortlessly ensure that your business is free from the risks of biological hazards at all times.

Start monitoring your operations using our free 14-day trial and experience the efficiency of our software solutions.



Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do you need more information on controlling biological hazards? Here are some of the most useful and relevant questions regarding biological hazards in the food industry.


What should food workers do to prevent biological hazards from contaminating foods? 

The most effective food handling practice for preventing the contamination of food by biological hazards is to practice proper handwashing consistently. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that up to 50% of the risk of infections and deaths from diarrheal diseases could be prevented with proper handwashing.


Is biological hazard usually set as a Critical Control Point?

Establishing a Critical Control Point depends on the severity of the risk of infection and the likelihood of occurrence of a food safety hazard. If a biological hazard has a very high potential severity and is very likely to occur, then a critical control point may be established for its control. Learn more from our comprehensive article about critical control points.


Which bacteria are defined as biological hazards? 

All pathogenic bacteria are identified as biological hazards. This includes bacterial agents that can cause acute effects on humans when consumed through contaminated food.


What is the most common biological hazard in food?

Bacteria and viruses account for the majority of the identified foodborne illness-causing hazards in the food industry.



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