Food safety

Chemical contamination in food; sources and ways to prevent them

Chemical contamination in food is one of the leading concerns of consumers.

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Chemical contamination in food is one of the leading concerns of consumers.

  • Chemical contamination of food is described as the presence of an unwanted chemical substance.
  • Chemical contaminants can cause acute or chronic human health effects from direct contact.
  • A digital Food Safety Management System can significantly help you control the presence and risks of chemical contamination in your food business. 

Chemical contamination of food is one of the major food safety hazards in the food industry. This type of contamination poses a great health risk to consumers as it can cause both immediate and long-term effects. Chemical contamination in food is very common and can enter the food chain system at any point when improperly monitored. The first step to preventing chemical contamination and protecting your customers is understanding which contaminants are under this category.

In a recent food and health survey published in 2021, consumers ranked the presence of chemicals in food as a top food safety concern. This survey shows that the lack of common information on chemical ingredients may be a big problem. Distinguishing between safe chemical components and chemical contaminants is an essential task for both customers and food handlers.

In this article, we talk about what are chemical contaminants for food handlers and some of the essential points to know to avoid them.



What is chemical contamination definition?

Chemical contamination refers to the presence of unwanted chemical substances in food or feed. Like other types of food contamination, chemical contamination can occur at any point in the food chain. Chemicals that are considered to be contaminants in food vary significantly in categories.

Even if a chemical is considered safe, its unintentional presence is still considered a form of contamination. Chemical contamination can be indicative of the food processes applied to raw materials. Traces of chemical contamination, such as toxic compounds, can give food handlers and inspectors a glimpse of non-compliances that may have occurred during processing.

For example, the presence of exceedingly high levels of pesticides and other toxic chemicals on food ingredients can indicate malpractice or non-compliance to approved food safety regulations during the growing periods. 

While not all chemical contamination poses an immediate threat to human health, some chemical hazards can accumulate in the body and cause long-term adverse effects.

Learn more about the two other types of food contamination, biological and physical, from our Food Safety Blog.


What are chemical contaminants?

Chemical contaminants are inorganic or organic compounds that are toxic and can cause harm to consumers when present in foods. Chemical contaminants can be non-harmful at low levels or very toxic. This type of contaminant is one of the main food safety hazards that can make food unsafe for consumption.

Chemicals that can be considered food contaminants are abundant in any commercial kitchen. Cleaning supplies, handwashing soap, additives, and preservatives can come in contact with food through cross - contamination and increase the risk of causing foodborne illnesses. Chemical contaminants can also be sometimes found as drinking water contaminants, which pose a significant threat to your food business.

Some chemical contaminants may be naturally present in foods for human consumption and can be removed through processing. Examples of these natural contaminants include the antinutrients in soybeans and glycoalkaloids in potatoes. The former example can be removed by simply soaking and peeling the soybeans, whereas glycoalkaloids can be removed through adequate cooking enough to achieve safety but maintain food quality.

In contrast to removing chemical contaminants through processing, some examples of chemical contaminants are produced through overprocessing foods. Toxic chemical substances, such as acrylamide, are formed when high-protein foods are exposed to extreme heat for a prolonged time. This process contamination commonly occurs in overprocessing fried foods such as french fries, potato chips, and processed meats. Food processing contaminants are common when overprocessing and unregulated operations are present.


Chemical food contamination examples

Any chemical, whether organic or inorganic, that is unintentionally present in a food product is considered a chemical contaminant. The sources of these contaminants may vary and may imply different meanings.

Chemical contaminants and food safety hazards are present all around the food industry. Chemicals help preserve food safety, prolong shelf life, and reinforce a clean environment for processing food products. Some food-safe chemicals can also be considered contaminants when improperly used.

Specifically, some of the most common chemical food contaminant examples include:

  • Inorganic contaminants, such as heavy metal contamination (e.g., mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic)
  • Mycotoxins (natural toxins from fungi, may come as a by-product of bacterial food contamination)
  • Acrylamide
  • Unintentionally present preservatives to improve shelf life or food quality (e.g., sulfites, benzoates, and nitrites)
  • Food contact chemicals/ cleaning solutions (e.g., bleach and detergent)
  • Industrial chemicals (e.g., Pesticides, dry soil enhancers, herbicides, and fertilizers)
  • Veterinary drug residues (e.g., antibiotic residues)

In some countries, contamination by chemicals is permitted, provided that the level of contamination is within the approved limit. The threshold level may vary among developed and underdeveloped countries depending on their daily intake. Exceeding established thresholds makes these chemicals toxic contaminants and can manifest dietary implications.

Not all chemical contaminants pose a significant food safety risk in small levels in food. For example, human exposure or direct contact with very low heavy metal concentrations may not have rapid potential health effects or just cause mild gastroenteritis. Despite this, accumulation through aggregate exposures to food contaminants can cause adverse health effects.

Some of the mentioned chemical food contaminants, such as cleaning solutions, flame retardants, and preservatives, are common items in a food business facility. Food safety plans consisting of proper handling and regular monitoring are needed to prevent these harmful substances from contaminating food. Sources of food contamination can be immediately addressed with comprehensive food safety plans. 


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What are the main types of chemical contamination of food?

As mentioned, chemical contaminants can either be inorganic or organic contaminants. The difference between these two categories is on a molecular level. Each classification consists of a wide range of chemical contaminant examples and can cause a wide range of human health effects.


checking chemical contaminations in food


The more general classification of chemical contamination in foods is based on their sources within the food chain cycle.

  • Environmental contaminants. Contamination with respect to environmental conditions involves chemical pollutants found in drinking water sources, air, or soil that may have resulted naturally or through environmental issues. Environmental pollutants, such as lead and other metals in agricultural soil, cadmium in rice crops, microplastics in the marine environment, agricultural chemicals in farms, and even radioactive elements, are widespread.

Environmental contaminants can be sourced from agricultural processes and industrial chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, and water treatment operations that contaminate fresh produce or cause contamination in drinking water and soil. Heavy metal contamination in the environment can be easily transferred into the food we use for human consumption when improperly regulated. Studies of toxic metal contaminants and their transfer from soils to crops and fruits have been widely researched in the industry. 


  • Natural contaminants. Natural chemical contaminants originate from the food ingredient or are naturally produced. This type of contamination includes naturally occurring toxic contaminants in plant materials, such as alkaloids, and toxins from microbiological contaminants that can produce adverse human health effects.
  • Process contaminants. Chemical contamination can also be produced by processing food. From a food production perspective, a great example is the production of acrylamide and furan. These by-products are produced when foods with amino acid and sugar content are exposed to exceedingly high cooking temperatures. Acrylamide is a known carcinogenic food contaminant and can be used as an indicator of overprocessing food products. 
  • Adulterants. Adulterants are chemical compounds that are intentionally added to the food product to replace a missing substance or improve the overall food quality or shelf life of food. These unwanted chemical compounds are undeclared and are considered a violation of food labeling laws.


The mentioned major types of chemical contamination can enter the food production chain at any point. Chemical contaminations are also often categorized as intentional or unintentional. The former category includes unwanted chemical compounds added to the food as a form of terrorism or to mask an unwanted character. On the other hand, unintentional chemical contaminations are those that are introduced through the environment of the food.

While some types of chemical contamination are hard to eliminate or avoid in foods completely, regulatory measures for the minimum and maximum contaminant levels are set to protect public health from adverse health effects. 


Common sources of chemical contamination

Unsafe chemical contamination is present everywhere and can enter the food system without proper food handling practices. Contamination can come from raw sources of food materials, processing methods, food packaging materials, and agricultural products. 

Chemical contamination in food may occur from the following common food contamination sources.

  • Raw sources of ingredients. Unsafe chemical compounds can be naturally produced by the living organisms around us.  Living organisms produce some chemical substances that become chemical contaminants as their defense mechanism to survive.

An example is an alkaloid produced by plants, which can induce digestive, neural, and immune system problems when consumed in excess. This substance is part of the defense mechanism of plants to protect themselves from herbivores. Dietary exposure to some of these toxic compounds can cause serious problems.

  • Agricultural practices. Other sources of food contamination can include the production setup and human activities during raw material production. Unregulated agricultural chemicals and practices, such as the excessive use of pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and other veterinary medicines, can significantly contaminate the soil, irrigation sources, food crops, and animals and can carry over residues to the final raw material used for food preparation.

These can become environmental pollutants and cause a wide range of food safety issues. Some plants can act as bioremediators and collect toxic chemicals, heavy metals, or antimicrobial residues from contaminated soil and water. As such, monitoring and ensuring that your food supply follows food safety regulations is a must to avoid contamination of foods.




The water and soil used to produce food supply must be regulated and monitored to ensure they are within food safety standards and contaminant levels are low. Contaminants of drinking water can easily spread throughout a domestic kitchen when improperly regulated. 

  • Food processing facility and methods. Within the food processing lines, unintentional contamination of chemical substances may occur. Foods exposed to machine processing can sometimes be tainted by food processing contaminants, such as lubricants and oils used in equipment maintenance. In addition, the water for consumption may also be contaminated by leaks in the piping system.

In the same light, chemical contamination of food can also occur due to improperly removed cleaning solutions or food contact chemicals on equipment and surfaces. 

Additionally, food can also be contaminated by chemical by-products produced during processing. The Food and Drug Administration summarized some of the most common process contaminants in foods resulting from heating and fermentation.

The design of food processing lines must consider critical limits and maximum levels to avoid producing toxic by-products and similarly ensure a hygienic design for cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.

  • Packaging materials. Some types of packaging materials and polymers pose great human health risks and can become a source of food contamination. The packaging material used to contain foods must be inert as possible or not react with the enclosed food. For example, some studies have shown how acidic food can react with galvanized metal containers and produce unwanted inorganic or organic compounds.

When unregulated, chemical compounds from food containers, such as metals, aromatic hydrocarbons, melamine, and plasticizers, can migrate into the food being held. Some studies show the iron migration of compounds from cans into foodstuff during storage. Frequent or daily exposure to food packaging migrants can cause cumulative human health effects.

  • Intentional adulteration. In some cases, individuals or a group of people deliberately contaminate food production as a form of terrorism or sabotage. This intentional adulteration can lead to wide-ranging health problems and issues for your food business.

chemical contaminants in water


Another type of intentional adulteration is when food handlers deliberately add extenders, preservatives, or food additives and contaminants to increase bulk size or improve food quality without declaring the additional ingredient.

Some chemical contamination or toxic compounds may produce immediate potential health risks for consumers, whereas others don't. The latter type of chemical contamination effect can occur as a result of repeated dietary exposure of a consumer to the same contaminant, such as heavy metal accumulation, causing chronic foodborne infections.


When is chemical contamination likely to occur?

A wide range of foodborne outbreaks due to chemical contamination or toxic compound is more likely to occur when food handlers do not practice proper food handling procedures and the operations lack proper monitoring of food materials. All food businesses must have appropriate food safety plans to control chemical contamination.

Excessive use of food contact chemicals for cleaning and agricultural processes can lead to contamination of drinking water and food materials. In addition, incorrect food sanitation operations and schedules can increase the risk of chemical contamination.

Food handlers who are not practicing proper sanitation and hygiene can cross-contaminate food products and spread organic pollutants. Personal care products used by food handlers inside the food facility can contaminate the food supply when unregulated.

These cases can be significantly reduced if your food business employs a comprehensive food safety management system. At FoodDocs, we provide an intuitive solution to help your team reduce the likelihood of causing chemical contamination in your food business.

Use our digital Food Safety Management System to automatically generate your team's most important food safety monitoring logs and checklists. Powered by artificial intelligence and a machine learning program, you can get a comprehensive digital Food Safety Management System in just 15 minutes.


What symptoms may chemical contamination cause?

Chemical contamination in food can cause foodborne illnesses. Some chemical contaminants can cause acute or rapid adverse health effects on affected individuals, whereas others may take time to manifest. Physiological effects may sometimes be very evident.


chemical contaminants in agriculture


Some symptoms and acute effects of foodborne infection from human exposure chemical contamination may include:

  • Mild gastroenteritis
  • Abdominal pain
  • Burning eyes, nose, throat, and chest due to irritation
  • Teary eyes
  • Impaired vision
  • Skin rashes
  • Diarrhea

Chronic effects of chemical contamination due to repeated human exposure and dietary intake can cause diseases such as cancer and renal, hepatic, and neurological syndromes. The symptoms and toxic effects of chemical food contamination examples may vary depending on their origin and concentration. Chronic foodborne diseases are usually associated with the effects of pesticides and other toxic substances.


How to detect chemical contamination in food?

On a federal level, the United States FDA and European Food Safety Authority regulate and monitor chemical contaminants in foods. The safety agencies employ monitoring programs and regulatory compliance for naturally occurring toxins, agricultural products, and other chemical contaminants to reduce the risk of human exposure to food contaminants and their potential dietary intake and adverse effects. 

The detection of chemical contamination is often the task of food manufacturers. Suppliers of raw foods to food businesses are required to declare the results of their chemical analyses upon the delivery of their products for official control purposes. 

Detection of chemical contamination in food is mostly done through analytical methods such as liquid chromatography and spectrometry, which give precise and accurate detection levels based on a standard. These analytical methods have been tested to prove their efficacy in detecting chemical contaminations and are often used as standard methods.

Other detection procedures that yield immediate results include testing kits and smart devices. These procedures can help food businesses identify if food is contaminated and can be further analyzed through more thorough procedures in a laboratory. Contamination measurements in drinking water are done through rapid methods and kits, such as test strips with known standards. Although very general, such tests can give food handlers an idea if there are contaminating products in drinking water.


How to prevent chemical contamination in food?

Food handlers play a great role in preventing the risk of causing chemical contamination of food. Proper food sanitation and handling can significantly reduce the occurrence of chemical contamination. 

Here are some common ways that you can do to prevent causing chemical contamination or control the implications of food contamination in your food business:

  • All food handlers must be trained to understand the risks and dangers of chemical contamination in food.
  • Food handlers must label all cleaning and sanitizing supply properly.
  • All cleaning supplies and equipment must be stored properly, away from the food preparation area.
  • Only approved cleaning and sanitizing supplies by your local regulation must be used in your operations.
  • Follow the exact manufacturer's direction in using and diluting the cleaning solution.
  • Follow safety regulations of food additives & contaminants.
  • Regulate the cooking temperature to prevent the production of process contaminants in high-risk foods (e.g., acrylamide).
  • Seek professional services from pest control operators when employing pest control measures.
  • Only use food-grade oils and lubricants for machines and other equipment.
  • Dispose of cleaning agents properly.
  • Establish a comprehensive water management system.
  • Conduct a regular assessment of water quality.
  • Encourage proper handwashing among food handlers to prevent cross - contamination and other food contamination incidents.


How can digital solutions help you manage chemical contamination?

The presence of chemical contamination in food has remained a top concern among consumers. The human health effects of chemical contamination can lead to serious food contamination incidents and be very costly for your food business. The key to avoiding such food safety issues is ensuring that chemical contaminations are controlled or eliminated from the source of food contamination.

The best solution to address chemical contamination of food and all other food safety concerns is to use a digital solution that offers intuitive features for your operations. At FoodDocs, this solution is exactly what we provide to food businesses.

You can get a digital Food Safety Management System to help control operations related to monitoring chemical contaminations in just 15 minutes. With our digital solution, you can get the most important monitoring logs and other intuitive features that will help you improve efficiency.

Here are some of the most significant features that can help you control chemical contamination in your operations:

  • Get automatically generated monitoring logs and food safety checklists for controlling and monitoring chemical contamination. All monitoring logs are based on the nature of your operations and can be further improved through customization.
    • Master sanitation schedule. Keep the frequency and accuracy of your sanitation procedures in check and well-documented by logging sanitation activities and following a master sanitation schedule.

Master sanitation schedule FoodDocs instructions

Master Sanitation Schedule from FoodDocs


  • Employee hygiene checklist. Use this checklist to verify if your employees follow standard hygiene protocols such as handwashing.
  • Sanitizer concentration verification. Ensure that your team uses the correct and prescribed sanitizer concentration to prevent cross - contamination of excessing solutions. Record and verify the concentrations using this monitoring log.

Sanitizer concentration verification log

Sanitizer Concentration Verification from FoodDocs


    • Water testing log. Use this log to record surface water sample analyses and ensure that your team has a regular record of the water system quality. Consistently prevent having a contaminated water supply to protect consumers from contaminants in food.
  • One of the most precise and useful practices in preventing chemical contamination is using the prescribed concentration of food additives and cleaning solutions. All of our monitoring logs are equipped with detailed instructions to guide food handlers in performing and monitoring food safety operations. Use this feature for food safety training.
  • Use our smart notification system to remind food handlers of upcoming food safety operations. With this feature, you can ensure that all monitoring and checklist operations to control chemical contamination are controlled.

In addition to features that will help food handlers control monitoring procedures, our digital solution also offers features that can improve the efficiency of managing food safety operations.

  • Our digital solution only requires 15 minutes to be set up automatically. Switching to a digital platform is as easy as answering a few basic questions related to your operations.
  • Save up to 20% of your time supervising your team using our real-time dashboard. Get a quick overview of your operations and immediately identify areas that need more attention with a brief look at this dashboard and apply solutions immediately.
  • Archive and organize all digital documents in one secured cloud storage space dedicated to your food business. 

In addition to the quick generation of a comprehensive digital Food Safety Management System, opting for a food safety solution in a digital platform can be your first step to becoming more sustainable. With FoodDocs, you can consistently improve food safety compliance while contributing positive actions to the environment.

Our digital solution complies with the most significant food safety regulations and provides references to the most applicable standards based on your operations and location. What makes our system flexible is that you can customize monitoring logs to improve or tailor them to your operations better.

Discover and experience more of our features and services using our free 14-day trial and become one of the 30,000 customers enjoying food safety compliance using our digital solutions. 



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