Food safety

How can a food handler identify food that has been contaminated with pathogens?

Pathogenic contaminations can potentially cause a foodborne illness outbreak, especially without regular monitoring.

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Pathogenic contaminations can potentially cause a foodborne illness outbreak, especially without regular monitoring.

  • Pathogenic contamination refers to the unwanted presence of harmful microorganisms in food.
  • Pathogenic microorganisms can be bacteria, viruses, molds, yeasts, and parasites and are termed as such or their negative effects on human health.
  • Basic food safety guidelines can be monitored by food businesses using a food safety management system like FoodDocs.  

One of the main struggles of every food business is how can a food handler identify food that has been contaminated with pathogens. Pathogenic contamination does not immediately show signs and can be hard to identify unless it causes foodborne illness.

A whopping 600 million cases of foodborne illness occur every year worldwide. It is part of every food business' commitment to reduce this number and protect public health.

Knowledge of pathogenic contaminations and how to prevent them is a food handler's main defense against foodborne illnesses. Without the consistent application of food safety guidelines, operations can be considered hazardous for public health.

Simple food safety practices can be significant enough to prevent an outbreak from occurring. For example, food contamination caused by pathogens on a food handler's body can be controlled by handwashing and proper hygiene.

In this article, learn more about the best way to get rid of pathogenic contamination and ensure that pathogens are controlled in your food business.


mold is pathogenic contamination


What is pathogenic contamination in food?

Pathogenic contamination in food refers to the unwanted presence of a biological contaminant on any type of food and can cause foodborne illness. Microbial pathogens can be bacteria, viruses, molds, yeasts, or parasites that can cause negative effects on any human being that consumes them or their by-products.

Similar to humans, pathogens, except viruses, use food ingredients as their natural source of nutrients. Contaminating food is normal for microbial pathogens as this is their way of survival. In fact, food ingredients, especially those that come from agricultural sources, naturally have living microorganisms on their surfaces. Operations such as brushing off soil from produce followed by washing of produce can help reduce the levels of pathogen load.

In addition to the natural living pathogens on fresh ingredients, microorganisms can work their way into food through different modes, such as cross-contamination. Factors such as food handlers and soiled utensils can introduce microbial pathogens into the food.


What are the common pathogens in food?

Pathogens may refer to any microorganism that can cause foodborne illness in humans. This category of microorganisms includes bacteria, viruses, molds, yeasts, and parasites. Do not confuse beneficial microorganisms with microbial pathogens. Although the unwanted presence of beneficial microorganisms on a particular food is considered a contaminant, we still cannot classify it as a pathogen unless it is known to cause illness in humans in unregulated presence.

In the food industry, there are at least six major foodborne pathogens that cause the most number of foodborne illness cases each year. These common microbial pathogens in food and common source of pathogens include the following:

  • Norovirus. Norovirus is a human pathogen. This virus often comes from infected food workers and transmits the virus through cross-contamination during the preparation of foods.
  • Nontyphoidal SalmonellaThis pathogen commonly comes from foods of animal origins, such as milk, raw meat, eggs, and poultry. Greens have also been implicated with nontyphoidal Salmonella when they are grown with animal manure as fertilizer.
  • Salmonella Typhi. The major source of this microbial pathogen is contaminated water sources.
  • E. coliPathogenic varieties of this fecal bacteria come from contaminated water and agricultural products such as undercooked raw meat, unpasteurized dairy products, sprouts, and other raw foods.
  • ShigellaThis pathogenic bacteria is often transmitted through water contaminated with animal waste and infected food handlers.
  • Hepatitis A. Infected food handlers can contaminate food when they do not practice proper handwashing and are infected with the pathogen. Additionally, this pathogen is also transmitted through contaminated water. 


contaminated water transmits pathogens


In addition to these six common pathogens, other notable pathogenic contamination in foods may include the following:

  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Campylobacter sp.
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Clostridium perfirngens
  • Bacillus cereus
  • Vibrio sp.
  • Aspergillus sp.
  • Trichinella spiralis

This provided list is not exhaustive. Other foodborne pathogens exist in the food industry, with some being very specific to particular raw food. At least 250 foodborne diseases are identified by food safety agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

These pathogens can come from different sources, can survive minimal processing steps, and persist in ready-to-eat foods. Even a pathogen with the lowest risk assessment can cause significant damage when improperly controlled during food preparation.  As such, all food safety operations must be consistently performed to contribute to reducing the presence of pathogens to allowable levels in fresh foods. 


What happens if you don't get rid of pathogenic contamination?

If food handlers fail to avoid or get rid of pathogenic contamination, the risk of causing a foodborne illness outbreak increases. The elimination of microorganisms in food and the working area is a constant task that must be upheld at all times. With a weak food safety system, the likelihood of microbiological pathogen removal becomes lower, and its spread throughout your establishment becomes higher. 

Pathogens can spread from food employees, equipment, and the food itself to other food products. This process is called cross-contamination. Whether a customer is healthy or has a weak immune system, foodborne diseases can still harm them upon direct contact with pathogens.

Individuals with weak immune systems, such as pregnant women, children under the age of five, and the elderly, are more susceptible to the effects of pathogenic contamination. Some common signs of foodborne illness from hazardous foods may include abdominal pain or stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. 

The spread of pathogenic contamination can be effectively controlled through any proper food safety activity during processing, such as cleaning, chilling, and properly cooking foods.

In addition to a set of food safety operations, your team must also have a stringent food safety management system. This program will help you ensure that every task is performed correctly through a comprehensive monitoring system.

You can get the most efficient digital FSMS from FoodDocs! We offer a smart, digital FSMS that can generate the most essential food safety documents based on your operations. In addition, our digital solution can help you ensure that every food safety task is done on time with our smart notification system.


FoodDocs food safety system-1


How can a food handler identify food that has been contaminated with pathogens? 

Unfortunately, there is no sure way to detect if a food is contaminated with pathogens unless the microorganisms produce enough by-products from their metabolism. Depending on the initial microbial load of contaminated food, the rate of spoilage can vary.

Some sure signs of pathogenic contamination include the following changes in the food item:

  • Production of sour or off-putting odor.
  • Formation of bubbles on the surface of the food.
  • Formation of a thin film of slime on the surface of the food.
  • Discoloration on the food.
  • Visible formation of a bacterial colony or cottony substance from molds.
  • Off-taste.
  • A significant change in texture.

food contaminated with pathogens changes color and odor


One sign of spoilage may be more evident than the other, whereas they can also be observed equally. Any observed sign of pathogenic contamination indicates that the food is not safe to eat and may cause foodborne illness.

Food processors must be well-acquainted with the common signs of spoiled foods as part of food safety guidelines.


What is the easiest way to recognize food contaminated with spoilage bacteria?

The most prominent change among the mentioned signs of food spoilage from pathogenic contamination is the change in odor. Due to the organic acids produced by most pathogens, the food often produces a sour smell or sometimes even harsher.

Pathogenic by-products will also change the taste of food, but this is not a recommended way to determine spoilage. Some pathogens produce toxins that can cause foodborne illness, even in small amounts.


How does food become contaminated by pathogens?

The most common way for food to be contaminated by pathogens is through cross-contamination. This event can happen as a result of transferring pathogens into food from the following potential sources:

  • Food handlers. Pathogenic microorganisms are common inhabitants of the human intestinal tract. They can travel outside the body through the fecal route and contaminate water. Other pathogens, such as S. aureus live on human skin and different parts of the body.

  • Equipment, tools, and contact surfaces. Unsanitized tools can easily contaminate foods as they frequently come in contact with any ingredient or cooked food in your establishment. This category includes production equipment and simple kitchen tools such as dishes, knives, and other cutleries.
  • Food. Because food-to-food cross-contamination can be a major source of contamination, always ensure that your ingredients are not from disreputable sources. Additionally, having a steady source of safe drinking water is also important to ensure food safety. Contaminated water is a very common source of pathogenic contamination.

Without proper food safety handling, pathogens from any of these sources can be transferred into the finished food product. Other sources of contamination may include pests, visitors, and food waste.

As part of comprehensive food safety programs such as a HACCP system, there must be an established series of steps to control contamination from the mentioned sources. 


pathogens can live on food handlers skin


How to get rid of pathogenic contamination?

To be able to serve safe food to customers, your team must be properly trained in the necessary food safety steps for every food business. Foodborne pathogens may come from different sources and spread because of poor food handling practices. 

Below are some individual operations or food safety practices on how to get rid of pathogenic contamination in your food business:

  • Practice proper food hygiene. Food workers must maintain cleanliness through regular handwashing, wearing the proper uniforms, and reporting any sign of illness among co-workers. 
  • Cook foods to current temperature recommendations and cooking times. Always ensure that food handlers know the recommended internal temperature for cooking different kinds of foods. Use a cooking temperature chart as a reference.
  • Use a properly calibrated food thermometer to check the temperature of foods and the storage area. An accurate temperature reading is key to maintaining food safety. A slight temperature difference can allow the survival of pathogens in foods.
  • Clean food contact surfaces. Follow the recommended contact time period for treatment using sanitizers and disinfectants.
  • Manage waste and pest problems to reduce bacterial contamination.
  • Ensure that you have an adequate quality water system. A safe water source can significantly reduce the risk of cross-contamination from water-borne pathogens.
  • Keep foods away from the temperature danger zone. This temperature range is the optimal condition for the growth of pathogens. 
  • Store cooked or ready-to-eat foods and leftover foods at proper cold storage temperature and container. Improper cooling of cold foods may lead to faster food spoilage. Refrigeration temperatures slow down the growth of pathogens in different types of foods.
  • Hot foods that require hot holding must be contained in stainless steel or other appropriate hot hold units and regularly monitored to keep elevated temperatures.
  • Separate fresh and fresh-cut produce, such as raw meats, from any ready-to-eat food, such as fresh fruit, inside any refrigeration units. Cooked food can become contaminated when drippings such as blood come in contact with food.
  • Divide large batches of food into smaller portions and store them in airtight containers to prevent any leakage.
  • Use separate utensils for handling raw and ready-to-eat foods. Cross-contamination of foods prepared in your establishment can spread infectious diseases caused by pathogens.

Other precautionary measures, such as the installation of metal detectors, can help get rid of pathogenic contamination. Foreign objects can become an agent in transmitting pathogens.

In addition to knowing these food safety practices, your team must also have a comprehensive food safety management system that contains monitoring procedures. Consistency in performing these operations is key to ensuring that pathogens are eliminated from your operations and your finished food products. 




How to get rid of pathogenic contamination?


What is the best way to avoid pathogenic contamination?

It is not enough for food handlers to just know how to perform food safety practices. Your team must also have a comprehensive system to ensure that these practices are consistently performed, and accountability is always present. Pathogenic contamination can easily occur if food employees forget one simple food safety task. The risk of causing a food safety outbreak increases as the number of tasks left undone increases. 

To help your food business in this objective, what you need is a smart food safety management system. Nowadays, it pays to have a smarter and more efficient system powered by the latest technology to maintain food safety. At FoodDocs, we offer a digital solution for ensuring that every food safety task is done on time and in the most efficient manner.

By combining the prowess of artificial intelligence and a machine learning program, our team has developed a digital solution for food businesses. With our digital Food Safety Management System, you can get all of the most essential monitoring forms in digital format and more. When you use our services, you can get the following benefits:

  • Powered by artificial intelligence, our system can automatically generate digital monitoring forms and checklists such as the following: 
    • Cold holding/Hot Holding Temperature Log
    • Cooking Temperature Log
    • Complete Restaurant Cleaning Checklist
    • Master Sanitation Checklist
    • Fridge Temperature Monitoring Log

Fridge temperature log on FoodDocs


These monitoring logs and checklists are automatically generated for your convenience and depending on the nature of your food operations. What's even greater is that you can customize every log and checklist to further fit your operations.

  • To help your team ensure that tasks are done on time, and efficiently, you can use our smart notification system. This feature sends intuitive alerts to assigned food handlers whenever a task needs to be done. Using such a feature, you can always stay on top of preventing pathogenic contamination and its multiplication.
  • All automatically generated monitoring forms are equipped with detailed instructions on performing the food safety task and record information for documentation. With these detailed instructions, you can ensure that all food safety tasks are done correctly.

In addition to benefits for food handlers, our digital Food Safety Management System can also help food safety managers in improving overall operations:

  • You can get a real-time dashboard that gives you an overview of your entire food safety operations. This feature can help you save at least 20% of your time supervising your team. Quickly identify areas that need attention and address them to avoid further problems. 
  • Get safe and versatile cloud storage where you can store, arrange, and access all of your digital food safety documents.

Controlling microbial contamination requires consistent application of food safety operations. Your team always has to stay on top of your food safety status if you want to keep pathogens out of your system.

Protect your customers by using our smart digital solution. Our system has already helped over 20,000 businesses, and your food establishment can be one of them. Maintain food safety compliance with our digital Food Safety Management System by answering a few basic questions. You can get your comprehensive digital FSMS in just an average of 15 minutes and maintain compliance thereafter.

Want to experience the convenience of our system now? You can use our free, 14-day trial and continue by availing of our services. 



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