Food safety

What is cross contact? How does it happen?

Cross contact contamination is when parts of a food allergen come directly or indirectly in contact with an ...

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  • Cross contact contamination is when parts of a food allergen come directly or indirectly in contact with an allergen-free food.
  • Food allergens can trigger any mild to a life-threatening allergic reaction in people with sensitivity to an allergen.
  • Cross contact can be prevented by using separate utensils and implementing a strict cleaning procedure when preparing allergenic and allergen-free foods.

Food allergens are one of the most significant food safety hazards in the kitchen. The general estimate is that at least 2.5% of the whole population in the world is affected by food allergies. This makes having the significant allergens in your food business a hazard to the affected customers. What's even harder to control is the fact that small particles of any food allergen can get into non-allergen-containing food products which are considered cross contact.

This makes non-hazardous food unsafe for customers with allergies. To avoid this from happening, food manufacturers must be aware of the cross contact definition in food. Similarly, they must have adequate awareness of food allergies.

Food allergy is a natural medical condition wherein the immune system mistakes certain proteins for dangerous foreign matter. This condition can never be ignored in a food establishment. The effects of ingesting any food allergen can be very mild to life-threatening symptoms depending on the type of food allergy. Every year, at least 30,000 hospital visits are attributed to food allergy reactions. Of this estimate, at least 150-200 deaths occur from severe food allergies.

As a food business owner or a food safety manager, it is part of your responsibility to ensure that every customer you receive in your facility is aware of the potential allergen content in your foods. Similarly, it is the responsibility of the owner to train the team on how to minimize the occurrence of cross contact.


cross contact is a concern with flour


What is cross contact?

Cross contact refers to the transfer of an allergen protein from an allergenic food to a non-allergenic one. The dangers of allowing cross contact to occur are very significant. The negative effects of consuming allergenic foods may sometimes become life-threatening and can lead to serious consequences for your food business. A simple peanut allergy can cause an anaphylactic reaction that can lead to death when not addressed immediately. 

Food allergens only require a very small amount to trigger an allergenic effect on allergen-sensitive people. Cross contact can occur at any point in the food supply chain. With this information at hand, the significance of proper handling to prevent cross contact makes the operation a matter of life or death. 

Contrary to other types of food contamination, such as biological hazards, allergens are not guaranteed to be removed by cooking. Cross contact with allergens will only take very small morsels of food to trigger a reaction. In the US, 8 major food allergens are recognized by the FDA:

  • Eggs 
  • Milk
  • Crustacean
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans


What is the difference between cross contact and cross contamination?

Cross contact generally only refers to the transfer of food allergens, whereas cross contamination includes biological, chemical, and physical hazards. If you have ever heard of the term cross contamination, you might be questioning yourself whether cross contact is the same as cross contamination. Do not be confused as cross contact is a concern quite specific for food allergens.

Additionally, the effects of the two terms are different. While cross contact causes allergic reactions, cross contamination can lead to a foodborne illness or food poisoning. Most agents of cross contamination, especially biological and physical hazards, can be removed through cooking or manual operations, respectively. In terms of cross contact, once an allergen source comes in contact with the food, then it is already considered unfit for potentially allergic customers.


How does cross contact happen?

As mentioned, cross contact can happen at any point in the food supply chain. Cross contact is a huge concern for any food establishment and any food handler must be properly oriented on how to avoid it from occurring. The first step to doing this is to learn the pathways at which cross contact can occur. Without proper segregation, handling, and food storage process, cross contact can easily occur.


Generally, cross contact can occur in two ways:

What is direct cross contact?

Direct cross contact. This type of cross contact refers to the direct application of an allergenic food to an allergy-safe food source. This may occur accidentally or unintentionally through food-to-food contact.


What is indirect cross contact?

Indirect cross contact. Using the same utensils and food equipment to process allergenic and non-allergenic foods is considered an indirect cross contact. When you use the same knife to cut cheese and cooked meat, the resulting dish is considered contaminated with the allergen.

Remember that removing the allergen from the contaminated food does not guarantee that no food allergen remains on the meal. This applies to both direct and indirect cross contact. If you accidentally put shrimp on a dish, manually removing them does not guarantee that the food dishes will not cause any effects on the consumers. Similarly, simply wiping off utensils without washing and sanitizing them in between use can still potentially cause allergenic reactions. Make sure that your team has a proper system for avoiding the occurrence of cross contact.


storage gluten free pasta separately to avoid cross contact


What is an example of cross contact?

Cross contact occurs when food handlers disregard cleaning of food contact surfaces and utensils in between use. Because food allergens can be transmitted through very small particles, the risk of cross contact must be managed as much as possible. Offering allergenic foods as part of your menu requires an adjacent strong food safety management system (FSMS) for customers with special diets and health issues.

As part of every team's FSMS, food handlers must be able to recognize cross contact to avoid them from occurring. Here are 4 very common examples of cross contact throughout the supply chain:


What are 4 examples of cross contact?

In this section, we discuss some of the most common occurrences of cross contact:

  • Supply. If your food establishment relies on personally buying raw material from a store, chances are you always go back with multiple bags. When carrying any raw food ingredient, it's important to always separate any allergenic item from allergen-safe food. Putting seafood with vegetables in a single bag not only increases the risk of cross contamination but cross contact as well. 

Similarly, if you are receiving raw materials from suppliers in bulk, foods in container vans can easily contract cross contact. Your team must ensure that your supplier conducts proper food handling procedures to avoid cross contact among food ingredients.

  • Preparation. When preparing foods, the most ideal condition is to have a separate preparation area for allergen foods. Despite this, not everyone can dedicate a room solely to these products, nor a separate area for cooking allergen-free food. Food allergens can easily transfer through using the same cooking utensils such as knives, chopping boards, ladles, spoons, and forks for handling and preparing allergenic foods. Similarly, human hands can also spread allergen proteins throughout the kitchen.

  • Cooking. During the cooking process, even a drop of allergic foods such as soy sauce can create a big difference in causing food allergies. Additionally, using the same cooking grill used to cook an allergenic food even with a new set of oil for preparing other allergen-free meals can transfer food proteins to the next set of foods.

  • Storage. In the case of dry, gluten-containing foods such as flour, storing gluten-free items and regular flour in the same cabinet can easily cause cross contact. Since flour is very fine and can travel by being blown, particles of regular flour can get into the gluten-free food. In fact, reusing a container that was previously used to store regular pasta that has gluten to store gluten-free pasta will contaminate the latter food product and trigger an allergic reaction in people with celiac disease.

This occurrence would be fatal for people with celiac disease. Another example would be during refrigerated storage. Cross contact can occur when allergenic foods are stored in the same compartment or refrigerator without even putting them in air-tight, separate storage containers.


cross contact occurs when using the same chopping boards


Cross contact can occur in many different ways. It can be direct contact with an allergenic food or an indirect contact through an uncleaned utensil. Regardless of how it happens, your business is at risk once a food safety complaint regarding this matter occurs. For food businesses that serve foods with allergens or prepare non-allergenic foods together with those that have allergens, you must always be prepared with a food allergy warning.


What is the risk in cross contact?

Mainly, cross contact increases the risk of food safety hazards as well as negative economic impact. Customers who unknowingly consume foods contaminated through cross contact can be put in a life-threatening situation from the adverse reactions of their body to the allergen. Your food business is then liable to address this concern by contacting the local health department as well as applying first aid to the customer. 

Additionally, after such an incident occurs, your food business and brand name can be subject to negative publicity. This effect can significantly lower your profits as you lose customer confidence. Your team may also face sanctions such as a mandatory inspection, fines, or worse, criminal charges


How to avoid cross contact?

Avoiding cross contact is not an impossible task. There are many precautions that can become vital parts of your food safety management system. In trying to avoid cross contact, knowledge and adequate preparation are key to achieving food safety assurance. These food handling practices can be as simple as proper handwashing to strict segregation of utensils and equipment. Remember that there is no sure way to know whether a food has contracted cross-contact or not. As such, strategies to avoid its occurrence must be in place.


Here are some of the most effective ways to avoid cross contact:

  • Orient food handlers about cross contacts and the potential risks it carries. 
  • Always use separate utensils and equipment for preparing and cooking. Some utensils that are most likely to induce cross contact when improperly handled include a cutting board, knives, spoons, forks, ladles, pans, and even food contact surfaces. 
  • Put proper food labels on containers with allergenic foods. Labeling of foods in storage containers minimizes the risk of confusing allergen-free ingredients for an allergy-safe meal over allergenic materials.
  • Practice proper washing of hands with soap. Effective and proper handwashing ensures that food handlers are not carriers of any food allergen which may be transmitted to other foods.
  • Keep allergen-free and an allergen-containing food separate. With very limited space such as in a refrigerator, use a fridge safety layout and properly keep foods separate in airtight containers to avoid cross contact.
  • Practice proper cleaning and sanitation. Before and after service, make sure to sanitize all common cooking surfaces where allergenic foods may have had contact. Use cleaning materials such as warm water, cloth towels, and correct cleaning products to remove cross contact allergens. Use a cleaning schedule to ensure that cleaning operations are always done.
  • Implement the use of a food allergy warning in your food facility. This document alerts people with food allergies and human health issues to the risks that they may get from eating foods prepared in the same facility as foods with allergens.

There are several ways to avoid cross contact in your food facility. All preventive controls can be achieved if your team has a comprehensive food safety management system. At FoodDocs, we can help your team ensure that every task for avoiding cross contact is done on time and efficiently. Using artificial intelligence, our system can create digital monitoring forms and offer you an intuitive notification system for these tasks. Learn more below!


FoodDocs food safety system-1


Digital solution against cross contact

When food handlers are well oriented with what is cross contact in food, their risks, and their sources, your team becomes more efficient in handling foods. Despite this, cross contact is not the only food safety hazard that needs to be monitored in your kitchen. There are several other tasks such as proper cooking methods, cleaning, sanitation, food hygiene, storage, and service. All of these operations require regular monitoring to ensure the quality of work and food safety. With all of these tasks at hand, there is almost no more time to improve on the business aspect of your food establishment.

Luckily, innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI) have made their way to the food industry. This technology is exactly what our team at FoodDocs is using to help food business owners maintain food safety compliance every day. At FoodDocs, we offer a digital Food Safety Management System that can help you ensure that all tasks to avoid cross contact and other operations are always done efficiently. With the help of AI, you can create your digital FSMS in just an average of 15 minutes! All you need to do is answer a few basic questions about your operations. After this step, our machine learning program cross-references your tasks with other similar operations and creates a digital FSMS built specifically on your food safety tasks.

Specifically, when you sign-up for our digital FSMS product, you will get the following:

  • Automatically generated digital monitoring forms that are based specifically on your most important food safety tasks. These forms come with an auto-fill feature which allows our system to insert information based on previously inserted data. You can help your employees save time by leaving only the verification task to be done.
  • A smart notification system that will send alerts through our mobile application. This system feature will send reminders to concerned food safety handlers about their particular food safety task and ensure that no operation is forgotten.
  • A real-time food safety dashboard that reflects an overview of your whole operations across the locations of your food business. This feature can help you identify whether there are areas that may be concerning and your team can apply immediate corrective actions.
  • Cloud storage is where you can store all of your digital food safety documents and access them quickly.


At FoodDocs, we aim to make every food that will come out from your food business safe. Additionally, our team envisions a food industry where food safety compliance is not a repetitive task and is seen as a burden by some. Our system was built to make food safety compliance an easy and enjoyable task. With our digital FSMS, you can save at least 20% of your time from supervising your team and help you focus on other aspects of your food business.

With the fast-paced changes in the food industry and stricter food safety regulations, what your business needs are an efficient and continuously improving smart system. If you want to check if our digital FSMS is the perfect fit for your needs, try our free, 14-day trial to check our system features. Join our list of more than 15,000 customers who are enjoying food safety compliance without digital FSMS.



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