Food pathogens: How can they affect your food business?

Food pathogens cause the majority of foodborne illnesses recorded worldwide every year.

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Food pathogens cause the majority of foodborne illnesses recorded worldwide every year.

  • Food pathogens are microorganisms that can cause negative effects, such as infections and diseases, on their human host after ingestion.
  • Consistent monitoring and control in the food chain are keys to preventing the unwanted growth of foodborne pathogens.
  • Use FoodDocs digital Food Safety Management System to get digital solutions and smart features for controlling food pathogens.

Food industries are in constant battle with food pathogens. A huge portion of the food safety management effort is focused on controlling foodborne pathogens and protecting consumers from the risks they carry. Pathogens can cause negative effects on humans in addition to spoiling foods. Outbreaks are commonly attributed to foodborne pathogens, which originate and spread through the lack of proper food controls. 

Different food types and operations may attract particular food pathogens. Some may be more prone to contamination due to the nature of their operations, whereas others can employ minimal food safety standards. Regardless of how prone a food business is to contamination, food control over the prevalence of pathogens in a food business is important.

The World Health Organization estimated that at least 600 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses after consuming contaminated foods. These foodborne illness estimates arise from the lack of food control and safe food and water resources in the industry.

Read through this article as we discuss the most important topics about food pathogens and discover the perfect solution to managing food control intuitively.



What are food pathogens? 

Food pathogens definition refer to biological contaminants of food that are responsible for causing foodborne illnesses in consumers. Pathogens, in general, are microorganisms that can produce negative or detrimental effects on their host.

Foodborne pathogens can be bacteria, molds, viruses, or yeasts that can cause human diseases or produce harmful toxins in foods. They are responsible for causing the majority of the foodborne illness outbreaks recorded in history.

Researchers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases caused by food pathogens. 

The negative effects caused by food pathogens can result from the changes they produce in the food, otherwise known as food spoilage, the toxins they emit, or the pathogen's activity inside the human body. Pathogens use the nutrients and moisture from food matrices as a source of energy and produce by-products, which we perceive as spoilage.

The effects of each food pathogen on consumers significantly vary on the causative agent, the microbial load of food, and the consumer's immune system. Effects can range from simple diarrhea and abdominal cramp to life-threatening cases.

In food businesses, foodborne pathogens and diseases are considered major hazards for any operation. Critical operations are established to control and minimize their presence to protect consumers.

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What food supports the growth of pathogens?

Pathogens can grow on different kinds of food. Like human beings, they need the nutrients and moisture from common food ingredients to survive and nourish themselves. Some food pathogens can be more resistant than others, allowing them to grow in harsher conditions which may be inhabitable for most.

Pathogens tend to contaminate foods abundant with the following key elements to survive:

  • Moisture
  • Nutrients
  • Neutral pH 
  • Oxygen
  • Temperature

The presence of these factors can shorten or lengthen the incubation period of food pathogens. For example, foods with more moisture can spoil faster than dried foods.

High-risk foods or those categorized as Time/Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) foods are more likely to be contaminated by pathogens as their characteristics support the growth of pathogens. Foods such as raw meat products, poultry, leafy greens, fresh fruits, cooked pasta, milk products, and eggs are all high-risk foods. Partnered with optimum environmental growing conditions, pathogens will contaminate these food materials and spoil them fast.

Contrary to high-risk foods, other food types are less likely to be contaminated. Some products have extreme characteristics and more complex food matrices that do not support the growth of pathogens. For example, acidic foods such as jams and jellies are less likely to be contaminated and spoiled by pathogenic bacteria. These products' very saturated and acidic characteristics will inhibit the growth of most disease-causing bacteria.

In addition, dried products that have less than 15% moisture are more shelf-stable. Almost all pathogens require very high moisture content and water activity to support growth. 


food pathogens shown on glass


Examples of common pathogens

Microorganisms are a natural part of the environment. They thrive in areas where there is an abundance of nutrients and moisture, such as foods. Although some microorganisms are naturally present in raw materials used in food businesses, pathogens are different news.

Not all microorganisms can cause foodborne diseases. Some of them are beneficial and can produce desired changes in food. What makes pathogens unwanted is their effects on humans. Pathogens can enter the food system through the air, soil, water, and food handlers.

Some of the most common foodborne pathogens known in the food industry include the following:

Foodborne pathogen Commonly associated food

Escherichia coli (E.coli)

Drinking water systems, meat products, sprouts
Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) Poultry and cooked meat
Salmonella Typhimurium (S. Typhimurium) Poultry, meat, vegetables, sprouts
Vibrio spp. (e.g., Vibrio vulnificus, V. parahaemolyticus) Contaminated water, raw oysters
Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni) Raw and undercooked meat and poultry
Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis) Raw milk
Molds and yeasts Fusarium spp. Cereals and grains
Aspergillus spp. Cereals, grains, peanuts, raw milk
Rhizopus stolonifer Bread
Pichia spp. Feeds
Norovirus Shellfish, fresh fruits, leafy greens
Hepatitis A Water system, vegetables, fruits


In addition to this non-exhaustive list of foodborne pathogens, six major pathogens have been identified by the Food and Drug Administration. These foodborne pathogens are noted to cause the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks over the past years. 

The six most notable foodborne illness-causing pathogens in the food industry include:

  • Norovirus
  • Salmonella Typhi
  • Nontyphoidal Salmonella
  • E. coli
  • Shigella
  • Hepatitis A

These six food pathogens have been documented to cause some of the most widespread cases of foodborne illnesses. They are known to be highly infectious and can cause significant adverse effects even with a small microbial load.


How does pathogenic contamination occur?

Food pathogenic contamination is a common problem in any food business. It can lead to significant problems, such as causing a foodborne illness outbreak when uncontrolled. The most notable cause of pathogenic contamination is cross-contamination, or the movement when pathogens transfer from one place to another.


food pathogens


Cross-contamination can occur through different routes in the food chain and must be consistently controlled. Controlling pathogenic contamination starts by understanding how it can happen in the food facility. Below are some of the common routes of pathogenic contamination in the food business:

  • Low-quality food supply. Foods naturally have microorganisms. This fact is more evident in foods grown close to the ground, such as root crops and vegetables. Despite this, raw material suppliers are also required to ensure that the raw materials they provide to your food business have a low microbial load to avoid spreading any potential pathogen. In addition, a very high pathogenic microbial load can make food processing operations less effective in achieving food control.
  • Improper food storage. Cross-contamination and the spread of pathogens during storage are highly likely with an unorganized system. The best example of this route is food storage inside a refrigerator. When foods of different categories, ready-to-eat, and raw foods, are stored on the same shelf inside a refrigerator, the likelihood of contamination is very high. Ready-to-eat foods are always advised to be stored at the top-most shelf, followed by raw foods of different subcategories. Putting raw foods on the top shelf increases the risk of juices, which may carry pathogenic organisms, from dripping to other foods.
  • Water contaminated system. Several food poisoning pathogens come from contaminated water systems. Since water is used in almost all food operations, a contaminated water system can easily contaminate an entire food facility. Water provides an abundance of moisture, which is one of the main requirements for most food pathogens to survive. Water contamination can result from poor drainage, plumbing, water source, or related agricultural practices that need your food facility.
  • Poor employee hygiene. Contamination of foods through poor hygiene is a very common occurrence. Human beings also naturally carry pathogens. Microorganisms, such as S. aureus, thrive on human skin, and they can be transferred to the food being prepared. The CDC reported that 9 out of 10 outbreaks are caused by contamination from food handlers. Without proper hygiene, food handlers are the best vectors for spreading foodborne pathogens in a food establishment.
  • Lack of monitoring system. Food safety management systems ensure that pathogenic microorganisms are consistently controlled through monitoring. Operations such as regular cleaning, sanitation, and even proper hygiene are all monitored using a management system. When this system is lacking or inefficient, food can easily become contaminated.

The presence of food pathogens in a food business is inevitable as foods and food handlers themselves inherently carry the microorganisms. Despite this, with proper control, monitoring, and sanitation, their presence can become negligible and safe. 


Most common consequences of pathogenic contamination of food

Pathogenic contamination can result in different situations and at any point within the food chain that may be damaging for both the consumers and your food business. The lack of critical control operations can put the lives of your customers in danger and create a bad reputation for your company's brand. 

For food businesses, pathogenic contamination can lead to the following consequences:

  • Foodborne illness outbreak. In extreme cases, pathogenic contamination can lead to an outbreak of foodborne diseases. This situation can affect a wide range of consumers. Customers who consume contaminated foods can manifest foodborne infections through the following symptoms:
    • Abdominal pain
    • Diarrhea
    • Fever
    • Vomiting

When more than one customer experiences negative effects from consuming your foods, the situation can be declared as an outbreak. Symptoms of food poisoning can manifest differently among customers. Healthy adult customers may show lesser symptoms from bacterial infections, whereas individuals with weaker immune systems, such as pregnant women and the elderly, can suffer more significantly.

  • Food spoilage. Pathogenic contamination, in advanced stages, can show signs of food spoilage by altering the general characteristics of the food. They can produce a sour taste from the production of acids, breakdown products, produce discoloration, and even form slime or biofilm cells on the surface of the product. Contamination by major pathogens can spoil a large number of materials in a facility, especially if it is uncontrolled. 
  • Legal suits. Pathogenic contamination is a serious violation of food safety regulations. Non-compliance to proper food handling, which has led to contamination, can merit sanctions from local health departments. In more serious cases, customers affected by the contamination can take legal action against your food business.
  • Profit loss. Consequences such as legal suits and the production of food spoilage lead to profit loss. In addition, these problems can gather negative feedback from other customers, affecting their perception of your operations.

pathogens in food

The presence of foodborne pathogens in food can be an indicator of the lack of food controls in a kitchen operation.Pathogenic contamination is a significant contributor to the economic problem of a nation. The World Bank has estimated that the effects of food contamination cost low- and middle-income countries an estimated value of $95.2 billion per year. These costs rise from the medical attention given to the affected consumers and the loss of productivity as a result of illnesses. 

The best way to control food pathogen contamination in an establishment is to have a comprehensive food safety management system. With the rise of technology applications in the food chain industry, management systems are becoming more and more intuitive. Software solutions present the perfect combination of technology and food safety management. Experience the efficiency and assurance that FoodDocs Food Safety Management System Software offers.


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How to prevent food from being contaminated with pathogens as a food handler?

Every food business must have a team adequately trained in controlling pathogenic contamination. This will ensure that food handlers know how to address food safety issues and improve accountability among themselves. While food pathogens are inherently present in any food business, their control and limitation are not impossible with proper food handling.

Follow these food safety guidelines to prevent food from being contaminated with pathogens:

  • Practice proper food hygiene. Food handlers are some of the most effective routes of pathogenic contamination in a food facility. Without proper food hygiene, employees are very likely to spread contamination. Always practice operations such as proper handwashing, wearing uniforms, avoiding jewelry during working hours, and wearing a neat hairnet to work. When consistently performed every day, these simple yet effective operations can significantly reduce the likelihood of pathogen contamination. 
  • Regular cleaning and sanitation. Food contact surfaces can also harbor vegetative cells of pathogens, which can then be transferred to foods. Regular and proper cleaning and sanitation can ensure that surfaces, tools, and equipment used to process food are always free of potentially contaminating food pathogens. Use a cleaning and sanitation checklist to ensure that the necessary everyday operations are performed religiously.
  • Properly cook foods. Always follow standard cooking procedures to ensure that foodborne pathogens are eliminated and will not cause infectious diseases in customers. Products such as unpasteurized milk and raw meat must be properly processed to kill present pathogens and avoid human infections. Standards for processing are commonly established based on the minimum processing requirement to eliminate the prevalence of pathogens in food. 
  • Good quality supplies. To reduce the chances of introducing food pathogens inside your kitchen, ensure that your supplier only provides good-quality raw materials. This means that the raw materials must have passed strict inspections to ensure that they are fresh and free of any signs of pathogenic contamination. 
  • Clean water system. Conduct regular water supply testing to avoid contaminating food materials and surfaces in your kitchen. Different locations always have a set standard for the allowable microbial load of water for food businesses. Consult your local health department and establish monitoring procedures and treatments for water systems.
  • Clean ventilations. In addition to water systems, food pathogens can also travel through the air. Spores of molds and viruses can easily travel from ventilation to food. Ensure regular cleaning and maintenance of ventilation systems.
  • Proper food storage. Train food handlers in properly organizing foods inside enclosed spaces, such as in refrigerators and kitchen cabinets. Use a Fridge Organization Chart to guide employees on how to group foods. Minimize cross-contamination and the spread of foodborne pathogens by enclosing fresh foods in airtight containers.
  • Food safety management system. Regular monitoring promotes accountability among food handlers. Establishing a comprehensive management system will ensure that employees are equipped with the necessary tools in preventing the spread of foodborne pathogens. Essential monitoring tools can help food handlers determine if food hygiene, proper food processing, storage, and supply receiving are all done accurately and on time.

In the food industry, preventing food pathogens from contaminating products is more economical and effective rather than addressing them as they cause infectious diseases. This approach to food safety reduces the resources and efforts needed to contain the damage of foodborne pathogens. Consistent and appropriate monitoring operations can help your team ensure control over foodborne pathogens. 


How can a food handler identify pathogens in food? 

Detection and identification of pathogens in food may not always be the easiest task. The naked eye cannot see bacterial pathogens unless thousands of bacterial cells form a colony and produce visible groups. Groups of pathogenic bacteria and yeast cells often present themselves as circular growths in varying colors. On the other hand, molds can be seen as colonies with fuzzy, cotton-like appearances. Detecting these formations is a sure sign that the food item is already contaminated.

In some cases, food pathogens will not form colonies but still produce unwanted changes in the food. Some signs of pathogen contamination include the following:

  • Production of foul smell
  • Formation of slime on the surface of foods
  • Discoloration of foods
  • Localized softening of the food surface
  • Sour taste due to the formation of organic acids

These markers are signs that the food is significantly contaminated and is not fit for consumption anymore. A common example of spoilage from contamination is when pathogens in milk form curdle on its surface and produce an acidic scent.

Remember that not all cases of foodborne pathogen contamination will manifest these changes. Some toxin-producing pathogens can excrete toxin by-products on the food and not produce any unwanted changes. 

In such cases, more advanced methods for detection of pathogens are used. Foodborne pathogen detection is used only through quantitative detection methods. This type of operation puts the product on hold in manufacturing companies and can cause delays during incubation periods until it clears of contamination.

Recently, rapid detection methods are now being used to determine the average prevalence of pathogen in food. Some manufacturing companies benefit from simultaneous detection as it speeds up the process of decision-making if the product is safe for release in the market in terms of pathogen level.


Controlling foodborne pathogens in food with FoodDocs

Foodborne pathogens can significantly affect your operations. Not only can they harm prospective customers, but they can also harm your food business. Contamination by food pathogens is a very common occurrence in any business where there is food, but it must always be controlled. Controlling food safety against pathogenic contamination is an everyday task that requires focus. Failure to perform a monitoring task can increase the chances of causing a widespread foodborne disease outbreak.

With the different and complex operations that need to be consistently performed repeatedly, food handlers may have a hard time keeping up with other tasks. The magnitude of controlling pathogens in a food business can also be taxing for a food safety manager.

To address this problem more intuitively and efficiently, use FoodDocs digital Food Safety Management System.This digital solution's features can help you stay on top of food safety compliance and keep your customers safe.

  • Get automatically generated monitoring logs and checklists that can help you maintain proper hygiene while controlling food pathogen contamination at any point in your food business. Some of the most important logs that our system can generate for you include the following:
    • Employee hygiene checklist

Employee Hygiene Checklist from FoodDocs


    • Fridge temperature log
    • Receiving goods log
    • Master sanitation schedule

      Master sanitation schedule FoodDocs instructions

Master Sanitation Schedule from FoodDocs


    • Cooking temperature log
  • All generated monitoring logs come with detailed instructions on how to perform the operation. This feature can help in onboarding new employees and ensure that food safety tasks are correctly and accurately performed at all times.
  • Receive smart notifications from our food safety app that will remind food handlers of tasks that need to be done on time. Use this feature to ensure that no food hygiene and safety tasks are forgotten. In controlling pathogenic contamination, timing is a very important factor. Timeliness of operations can ensure the minimal cell division or multiplication of pathogens.
  • Track your food products using our traceability solutions. Insert essential information such as production and expiry dates and easily locate any product with issues with this feature.

In addition to features that will help your team monitor food safety controls for pathogens, our digital solution can also help managers boost management efficiencies.

  • Set up your digital Food Safety Monitoring System in just 15 minutes. Switch to a digital platform by simply answering questions about your operations.
  • Save at least 20% of your time from supervising your operations by using a real-time dashboard that presents an overview of your daily operations. Use this feature to immediately identify areas that can result in unwanted food pathogen contamination.
  • Archive and organize all digital documents in dedicated cloud storage provided by our digital solution.

Powered by artificial intelligence and a machine-learning program, our digital Food Safety Management System can help you manage food safety tasks with less effort. There is no need to have extensive knowledge in setting up a digital system or managing food safety, as our digital solution can intuitively do it for you.

All generated monitoring logs and checklists are tailored to the nature of your operations. Further, customize logs and checklists to improve their suitability to your food business. In an average of 15 minutes, you can switch to a completely digital platform system that is more sustainable than using the traditional paper-based monitoring system.

Experience all of these mentioned features and more by using our free 14-day trial now




Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have more questions about food pathogens? Here, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about this topic.


What food supports the growth of pathogens?

Foods high in nutrients and moisture are more likely to be contaminated by pathogens as they support their growth. Pathogens require the same nutrients needed by humans, which can be found in food sources.


How should food workers protect food from pathogens?

The best way for food workers to keep food safe from pathogens is to practice proper hygiene. The majority of foodborne illness outbreaks recorded in the past are attributed to poor hygiene and cross-contamination in the food chain.


Which of the following foods is not a likely source of foodborne pathogens?

Raw foods such as unpasteurized milk products, meat, poultry, vegetables, and fresh fruits are more likely sources of foodborne pathogens than cooked or processed foods, such as dried fish or processed meats.


How can a food handler detect pathogens?

Food handlers can detect pathogens on food when the contaminating food pathogen produces visible colonies on the food matrices or when they produce observable changes in the food. Other methods of detection involve the use of rapid methods, such as an assay for detection procedure. Rapid and sensitive detection procedures can yield faster results for decision-making and more accurate prevention of bacterial infections.



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