Food safety

What is food contamination?

Food contamination describes the event at which a foreign material or substance that can induce foodborne illnesses is ...

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  • Food contamination describes the event at which a foreign material or substance that can induce foodborne illnesses is introduced to the food material.
  • Food contamination can be categorized as biological, physical, and chemical, depending on its nature and origin.
  • Food contamination can occur at any point in the food supply chain but can be effectively prevented by proper food handling practices.

Keeping food safe, although often goes unnoticed, plays a big role in sustainability and the growth of every nation's economy. This very big task is put upon the shoulders of food service providers in the food industry. As a major source of energy and nutrition, food must always be safe.

As such, it is the responsibility of every food handler to have the best approach to food safety. One of the key elements in this everyday battle is to know the common sources of food safety risks. Every food handler must understand what is food contamination.


clementines food contamination


In any food business, allowing food contaminations to let loose and uncontrolled in the production area can lead to severe consequences. The effects of some of these food contaminations can become a matter of life or death. In fact, at least 420,000 people all over the world die every year because of the effects of food contamination. As such, the responsibility of a food handler to keep every food safe cannot be undermined at any point in the food chain.

Learn more about what is food contamination, how many types of food contamination exist, and the best way to prevent them from causing problems in this article.


What is food contamination?

The term food contamination refers to the presence of unwanted materials or substances in food that may harm public health. Contamination of food is a global concern that significantly affects all other industries. The presence of unwanted substances on food can lead to foodborne illnesses and other related injuries depending on the type of food contaminant present. As members of the food industry, it is every food handler's responsibility to learn the best practices to control food contamination. 

Food contamination can occur at any point in the food supply chain. Without proper preventive measures, certain points of the supply chain can easily be penetrated and cause a widespread foodborne illness outbreak. The effects of food contamination cannot be underestimated. Some food contaminants can cause adverse health effects and even lead to death. As a food safety manager, you want all types of food contaminants outside of your preparation and delivery area.


What are the three types of food contamination?

The three types of food contamination are biological, chemical, or physical contaminations. These types are the major categories of food contamination and do not include others such as allergens and radiological contamination. Depending on the type of raw materials and products being produced, the most common food hazards in a business may vary. 

Get to know more about the three types of food contamination and the most common food contamination examples under each category:


Biological contamination

Perhaps the most common type of contamination, biological contamination, refers to the presence of harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, molds, yeasts, viruses, and parasites. These harmful agents are collectively known as pathogens. Depending on the pathogenic contamination present in food, their effects can range from mild problems such as nausea to life-threatening foodborne illnesses.


Some of the most common biological contaminants in the food industry include:

  • Norovirus
  • Salmonella
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Campylobacter
  • Staphylococcus aureus


These pathogens are the top five microorganisms that cause foodborne illnesses in the US. Other pathogens such as Clostridium botulinum, E.coli, and Listeria are also top contenders when it comes to this category. Every year, the effect of these pathogens accounts for at least 20% of the foodborne illnesses in the US.




Effects and sources of biological contamination

Biological contaminations can produce distinct changes in the food items after a while. In favorable conditions such as in the temperature danger zone, the biological contaminants can produce acid and lower the pH of the product as well as produce a bad smell or changes in the color and texture of the food. These changes are indicative of food spoilage and that the food products are not safe for consumption anymore.

Although the effects of microbial contamination can be severe, they can always be prevented and controlled. Proper food safety practices and constant monitoring are key ingredients to controlling biological contaminants. With an effective food safety management system, the sources of these contaminants can be controlled and rooted out. 

Some biological contaminants are naturally part of fresh produce, especially those that are grown from the soil and are exposed to environmental contaminations such as root crops. Other foods of animal origin such as unpasteurized milk and raw meat are very nutritious and they make a good growing medium for infectious organisms. In addition, contaminated water is a very dangerous source of these biological contaminants. This fact tells you that any food ingredient must be properly prepared and cooked to prevent pathogens from causing any damage or harm to consumers. 

Read more about biological contamination here.


Chemical contamination

Chemical contamination refers to the presence of unwanted chemicals in foods that can compromise their safety. The most common chemical contaminants include

  • Cleaning solutions
  • Fertilizer residues
  • Pesticides
  • Industrial oils
  • Additives
  • By-products


Chemical contaminations can be uncategorized into industrial, agricultural, toxic heavy metal, natural, and preservative chemicals. These classifications are based on the origin of a contaminant. While chemical contaminations occur less often than biological contamination, their potential to cause damage is significant.


Effects and sources of chemical contamination

Some chemical contamination such as cleaning agents can cause burning, swelling, gastric problems, and sometimes even long-term effects. This type of chemical substance may become introduced to the food being made through improper use or storage. Cleaning products, when not properly removed, can stay on surfaces and then become transferred to food.

In some cases, utensils coated with non-food grade materials have been reported to have contaminated foods with toxic metals. This case is an example showing how important the source of your materials must be high-quality. The same goes for your raw food materials. Agricultural products such as fertilizer residues and pesticides can stay on raw produce. You can conduct some chemical tests on food to verify or require your suppliers to regularly perform testing.

The preparation of food also plays a great role when it comes to chemical contamination. Substances such as additives can be considered contaminants when added in excess or found in products where they shouldn't be in. Additionally, by-products such as acrylamide can be used as an indication of temperature abuse. This substance is a harmful chemical that is considered a carcinogen.

Read more about chemical contamination here.


Physical contamination

Physical contamination is the presence of unwanted foreign materials on food. These foreign materials can cause injuries, bleeding, choking, and broken teeth when ingested. At worst, physical contaminants can block air passage and prevent normal breathing. Physical contaminants can be categorized as natural or unnatural depending on the nature of the contaminant. Some examples of physical contamination include the presence of the following:

  • Bone fragments
  • Feathers or hair
  • Pits, stem, and skin of fruits
  • Glass
  • Soil or sand
  • Metal shards
  • Pest droppings
  • Personal effects


Natural physical contaminants are those that are naturally part of food materials such as stems in fruits, whereas unnatural ones include stones, glass, and metal fragments. Physical contaminants, depending on their size, can be detected through visual detection.


Effects and sources of physical contamination

When undetected, physical contaminations can cause serious injuries to consumers. Some may cause injury, whereas others can create cuts to the throat or mouth. Some physical contaminants can come from food handlers and become transferred such as fingernails or hair in food. In addition to causing injuries, these contaminants can become precursors to other types of contamination such as biological contamination. Fingernails can introduce harmful organisms to food.

Such is the case when it comes to physical contamination from pests. Pathogens and diseases can result if these contaminants are introduced into the food. This effect highlights the importance of keeping pests out of the production area. 

Cases of physical contamination can result in a widespread food recall in food manufacturers. In 2019, the presence of physical contaminants has topped the charts of food recalls. These contaminants were reported to be composed of hard and soft plastics, metal, rubber, and glass which may originate from packaging materials and unmaintained equipment.

While all of these contaminants can easily go into the food being prepared, food handlers can combat them with an effective food safety management system. Proper preventive and control measures can be put in place to ensure that these contaminations are well monitored. Your best bet is to implement a digital Food Safety Management System (FSMS). At FoodDocs, we offer an intuitive solution to control these contaminations. 

Using our digital FSMS solution, you can be sure that food safety practices are done effectively and on time. Common sources of food contamination can be addressed even before they can create any damage. With our digital monitoring forms set at autofill, your employees can save time and promote the accuracy of recordings. Additionally, our digital FSMS features a smart notification system that ensures every task is done on time. Switch to a digital FSMS now and significantly improve your monitoring system with FoodDocs.The implementation of our digital system takes only 15 minutes and you can try it free for 14 days. 


Read more about physical contamination here.FoodDocs food safety system-1


What is the main cause of food contamination?

The main cause of food contamination is biological agents including bacteria, viruses, molds, yeasts, and parasites. Of the 250 identified foodborne diseases by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority are attributed to bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Foodborne illnesses resulting from these biological contaminants cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. When left untreated, they can become life-threatening.

One factor why biological contaminants are considered the main cause of food contamination is their mobile nature. Bacteria and other pathogens can easily be spread through cross-contamination. Because pathogens are too tiny to be seen, food handlers who do not practice safe food handling can spread them from one point to another. By simply holding raw foods and then a piece of equipment or a utensil, the naturally present pathogens can spread. You can learn more about how quickly can bacterial contamination occur from one of our articles.

More specifically, below are the 5 most common ways for food to become contaminated in a food establishment:

  • Cross-contamination
  • Low-quality ingredients
  • Improper storage conditions
  • Unclean preparation conditions
  • Poor food hygiene


This is why one of the best ways to prevent food contamination is to regularly and correctly wash hands. The worst carrier of contamination in food service is a food handler who does not regularly wash his or her hands. Learn more about how to avoid cross-contamination from occurring in your kitchen area from our informative articles.


jam food contamination-1


How does food contamination impact consumers and the economy?

The effects of food contamination can become far-reaching. While contamination may be seen to directly affect the health of consumers, this creates a series of other effects. A report from the World Health Organization mentioned that when food contamination occurs in one place, consumers from the other side of the planet may also be affected. Depending on the degree of contamination, their effects on other industries can be significant.


Health impact

The most common and evident effect of food contamination is on public health. Once customers of a food establishment encounter contaminated food, they can acquire foodborne illness. This event can put their lives in danger and may require customers to seek healthcare and expert treatment services. 

As some foodborne illnesses from food contamination can be life-threatening, customers are suggested to rest and delay heavy work. In addition, customers who are affected by any foodborne disease have weakened immune systems and are more vulnerable to other diseases. 


Economic impact

Although not immediately evident, food contaminations can lead to economic loss. Costs related to foodborne illnesses, damage control, recall, and public health alerts result from food contamination. Every year, at least US$7 billion is lost in the US alone, and at least US$95.2 billion in low- and middle-income countries. These economic effects also harm health care systems as it becomes overloaded or understaffed.

The effects of food contamination can lead to loss of productivity, which can affect the output of other industries. In terms of the effects of food contamination on food businesses, their detection can lead to significant problems. Consumers may become less likely to support your business when it becomes linked to food contamination issues. This affects your brand image as well as your revenues which may ultimately lead to closure. 


Environmental impact

Contaminated foods are considered spoiled and therefore cannot be consumed. These foods are often disposed of to prevent any damage or foodborne illness from occurring. This practice goes against the objectives of sustainability. The problem of the availability of safe food to eat would be hard to achieve without controlling food contaminations. 

When the entire food chain is disturbed because of contamination and spoilage, food producers need to work harder to supply the lost food. Contamination becomes a problem to sustainability when food security cannot be assured. When foods get contaminated or spoiled, food supplies fail to reach the destined consumers. 


The impact of food contamination does not only affect the food industry. From the mentioned effects, food contamination can have an indirect effect on other areas of the community and slow down growth. To ensure that these contaminations are controlled, make sure that your food business is equipped with a working food safety management system. Let us at FoodDocs help you start your smart, digital FSMS. Take advantage of our digital monitoring forms, real-time dashboard, smart notification system, and our unlimited cloud storage once you create your account with us.


How to prevent food contamination?

Preventing food contamination is one of the main objectives of a food safety management system. This management system implements food handling practices that help minimize the occurrence and risk of food contamination. In addition, an FSMS implements monitoring systems to ensure that food safety practices are properly implemented every time. As a food safety manager or the food business owner, you are responsible to provide your team with the knowledge and training to identify which activity helps prevent food contamination.

Some of the basic yet very effective ways to prevent food contamination include the following practices:

  • Clean
    • Practice regular and correct handwashing before, during, and after preparing food.
    • Use appropriate cleaning agents for food contact surfaces. 
    • Practice good food hygiene such as using hair nets, clipping nails, and not attending service when sick.
  • Cook
    • Thoroughly cook foods to the correct internal temperature to ensure that any present pathogen is eliminated.
    • Use a properly calibrated food thermometer to ensure internal temperature. 
  • Store
    • Keep foods in clean and tightly sealed containers.
    • Store foods in the recommended area with temperature regulation.
    • Keep your refrigerator's temperature at 40°F (4°C) or below.
    • Hold hot foods at 135°F (57°C) or above.
    • Ensure that foods are properly grouped inside a refrigerator. Use a fridge layout as a guide.
  • Prevent cross-contamination
    • Use separate cooking utensils for raw and ready-to-eat foods.
    • Clean food surface areas before and after using.
    • Keep raw foods away from the ready-to-eat product.

chef washing hands to prevent food contamination


With this many food safety practices, your employees have a greater tendency to forget some of them. Not to mention that these listed food handling practices are just some of the most common ones. Ensure that every food safety practice is well-executed using our FSMS.

To help you understand more about food contamination, here are a few of the most common questions asked regarding this topic:


What are the 4 types of food contaminant?

  • The 4 types of food contaminants include biological, chemical, physical, and allergenic contaminants. In other references, radiological contaminants are also considered.

What is meant by food contamination?

  • Food contamination refers to the presence of unwanted and potentially harmful substances and materials on food products and raw materials. When food contaminants are present, foods are considered spoiled.

What are 5 ways food can be contaminated?

  • Below are the 5 most common ways for food to become contaminated in a food establishment:
    • Cross-contamination
    • Low-quality ingredients
    • Improper storage conditions
    • Unclean preparation conditions
    • Poor food hygiene

What are the 3 major causes of food contamination?

  • In the food industry, the 3 major causes of food contamination are biological, chemical, and physical contaminants.

What is an example of food contamination?

  • A good example of food contamination is the presence of foreign materials such as glass or metal shards on food. 

What causes food contamination?

  • Food contamination can be caused by biological, physical, and chemical contaminants. Poor food handling promotes the spread of these contaminants throughout the food production chain.


Controlling food contamination with digital FSMS

Wherever there is food, there will always be the risk of food contamination. Objects and substances that are considered contaminants are all over the food supply chain. They can enter the production process at any given point.

As a food establishment team, one of your responsibilities to the consumers is to provide quality and safe food. As such, your team must be well-equipped with the most updated knowledge about food safety practices and complimented with a comprehensive food safety management system.

At FoodDocs, we have taken it as our objective to make monitoring and ensuring compliance easy and accessible for food businesses. With our digital Food Safety Management System, you can rest easy so that all of your food safety tasks will be done efficiently and timely. Switching to our digital solution from your traditional FSMS would only take you 15 minutes!

The whole process would only require you to describe your food operations and some important information about your food business. Afterwhich, our machine learning system will automatically generate a comprehensive digital FSMS tailored to your everyday operations.


What will you get with this digital FSMS? Check this list out:

  • Automatically generated digital monitoring forms fit your food safety operations. These digital monitoring forms are set to be auto-filled based on your previous data entries saving a significant amount of time for your employees and ensuring accuracy.
  • Intuitive notification system to remind your food employees about all food safety tasks in your business.
  • A real-time food safety dashboard that you can use to view and analyze your everyday operations. Save at least 20% of your time from managing your everyday tasks and easily identify which areas need improvement.
  • Cloud storage where you can store and organize all your digital documents and access them easily.


With our digital FSMS, you can ensure that the monitoring tasks built to keep out food contamination in your everyday processes are always performed. For most food contaminations, the timing of detection is important. As an example, the early detection of physical contamination can prevent bigger problems as this type of contamination can become a precursor for microbiological contamination. 

In just 15 minutes, you can help your team save time in performing the most important food safety practices of your business. In addition to getting a comprehensive plan, you can also customize your digital FSMS to accommodate other operations and improvements. Still not convinced? You can try our services and learn more about our digital FSMS by trying our free, 14-day trial. Let our system talk for itself as you work your way around it. Join the more than 15,000 satisfied customers who are now enjoying an efficient and comprehensive digital FSMS with FoodDocs.



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